Fine Gael are keen to present themselves as champions of women’s rights. But as Steph Hanlon argues, the role played by Simon Harris and others in the cervical screen scandal would suggest otherwise.
Simon Harris, Leo Varadkar, the HSE directorate, and previous health ministers are guilty of causing the worse health scandal this country has seen in decades. Yet they are still sitting smugly in their positions. They should be driven out of office.
17 women died without ever being informed of a previous misdiagnosis of their cervical screen test. If they had known, there could have been earlier intervention and their lives might have been saved.
In the first week of May, Harris revealed that the scandal was worse than first thought. There has not been a follow up audit on the tests for up to 1,500 women. This alone is causing massive worry in homes across the country.
A Political Scandal
This scandal is not just the responsibility of overpaid bureaucrats. It is the result of conscious political decisions. In 2008, the then Fianna Fáil government pushed through a programme to outsource testing to a private company in the US. The reason was to cut costs.
At the time, this move was denounced by the Fine Gael spokesperson, James Reilly. He said; ‘this rushed and ill-considered decision has serious consequences for our health service and for the health of our women.’
The reason is that US test screening operates according to different standards to Ireland. Screening takes place every year in the US rather than every three years in Ireland—and so US scrutiny is not as careful. Vicky Phelan has pointed out that the abnormality in her test was so obvious that it could not have been missed by any competent laboratory.
The warnings about the outsourcing of testing have been made repeatedly.Sam Coulter Smith, Master of the Rotunda Hospital, spoke out against such outsourcing. He explained that testing in America made it difficult to discuss the finding; ‘there were multidisciplinary meetings which were transatlantic, across time zones, across video conferencing. [There were] language issues around it in different countries’.
Dr David Gibbons was chair of the Cytology/Histology Group within the Quality Assurance Committee of the National Cervical Screening Programme. In 2008 he also warned that outsourcing smear tests would lead to missed cases or misdiagnosis of cancer.
Yet despite these repeated warnings, successive Fine Gael Health Ministers continued with the programme of privatisation—including Reilly himself, evidently wedded to a programme of privatisation in our health system.
The privatised testing industry in the US is driven primarily by a greed for profit. Since 2012, fees from Medicare to the labs have been cut and this has reduced safety levels. A US trade magazine for the clinical testing sector explains;
‘Most medical laboratories also reduced technical staff and trimmed management ranks. That has created two new problems. Technical staffs are already working at near peak capacity. Increased use of automation at these labs has reduced lab costs because labs were able to do the same volume of testing with fewer staff. However, the reduced staffs that oversee the lab automation are now working at their own peak capacity. They are highly stressed from the daily routine.’
Harris & Varadkar
Simon Harris and other Fine Gael Health Ministers turned a blind eye to these issues—placing privatisation before patient care. But their guilt goes even deeper. In 2014, an audit of cancer screening tests was conducted. Where there was a misdiagnosis, the doctors of patients were informed. Yet they were put under no obligation to inform patients of the misdiagnosis.
Significantly, last November the government amended the Civil Liability Bill to ensure that doctors were not forced to make a mandatory disclosure. They now pretend that they knew nothing about the emerging cervical screen scandal.
Harris plays the innocent school boy who heard nothing while the previous health Minister, Varadkar, said it would have been no difference for women had they been informed. We don’t believe them for a minute.
The findings of the Cervical Check Inquiry conducted by Dr. Gabriel Scally include two reports. Both of which have been published by Harris in June. The Scally Inquiry recommended;
“The provision of an immediate ex gratia payment of €2,000 to each woman involved and to the next of kin of the deceased, recognising that it is important that women do not encounter any financial obstacles to participating and making their voices heard in relation to both the Scoping Inquiry and any resulting Commission of Inquiry.”
This one-off payment by the State is an insult to the 209 women and their families. What good is €2,000 to address the anguish of the women and their families as a result of the incompetence and indifference of our health ministers? It is a token payment that discounts the suffering of people as a direct consequence of their policy of privitisation.
Harris and Varadkar have attempted to retain their “pro-women” stance on women’s health and safety post-referendum. Both have downplayed their responsibility for over two hundred women receiving a delayed cancer diagnosis, and furthermore suppressing the voices of people who have sought justice as a result.
The Cervical Screen Scandal is representative of the relationship and culture towards women by the HSE directorate and health ministers—one that is rife with hypocrisy, a lack of accountability, and the complete disregard for people.
This same view that prioritizes costs over Irish people’s welfare through the privatisation of our health system also views women’s pain as invisible until it fits into the correct narrative (i.e. the opportunity to gain favour through the 8th referendum, versus women affected by the Cervical Screen Scandal).
As of July 5th, the Health Service Executive has confirmed the increase in the number of women affected in the Cervical Screen Scandal from 209 to 221. Along with a further 12 cases identified, there are close to 40 cases being taken by women. This adds to the fact that the independent review of more than 3,000 smear tests, which was due to be finished by May has not yet started. This will not be completed in time to inform the Scally Inquiry and is further evidence of the HSE’s hollow sentiment.
This is an issue with deeper roots – it cannot die as a “scandal”. The negligence of the HSE directorate has cost people their lives. They should be thrown out of office. The HSE directorate should be sacked immediately, and Harris and Varadkar should go with them.