Head of Cervical Check inquiry warns 'fevered atmosphere' may affect investigation

A number of internal Department memos have been published this evening

Head of Cervical Check inquiry warns 'fevered atmosphere' may affect investigation

The head of the Cervical Check scoping inquiry, Dr Gabriel Scally at the Royal College of Physicians, 08-05-2018. Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews

The head of the inquiry into the CervicalCheck scandal has said the 'fevered atmosphere' around the situation may affect his investigation.

The admission is contained in new documents released by the Department of Health this evening.

In the documents, Dr Gabriel Scally said a number of key figures have been distracted by having to appear before Oireachtas committees.

In the memos, Dr Scally told the Secretary General of the Department of Health that he has met with Vicky Phelan and will shortly be requesting information from the parties involved in the investigation.

He warned however that in order to do his work he needs the full attention and co-operation of the key individuals involved in CervicalCheck, the Department of Health and the HSE.

Dr Scally said he was concerned the ‘fevered atmosphere’ surrounding the scandal may inhibit that. 

Internal memos

The documents reveal that officials in the Department of Health were aware that information from an audit of smear tests at Ireland’s national screening service was not being passed on to the women affected or their doctors.

The records reveal that CervicalCheck told doctors to pass on information about the review of smear tests to patients as a general rule of thumb – but told doctors to use their own judgement in cases where it was felt revealing the outcome could do more harm than good.

In cases where a woman had died, doctors were advised to simply record the result in their notes.

Meanwhile, the Health Minister Simon Harris today received Cabinet approval to set up a new independent oversight board for the HSE.

Leadership

Speaking in the Dáil this evening, Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin said the documents highlight a lack of leadership in the Department of Health.

He also said the Health Minister Simon Harris should have done more when he found out about the situation.

“Minister Harris became aware he says on April 16th via memo in relation to the Vicky Phelan case,” he said.

“I have to say – and I regret saying – there has been an absence of political leadership in the Department since then.

“I can’t understand why the minister would not have summoned people to his department on that issue there and then and said I want all documentation pertaining to this issue produced within 48 hours.”

Patient safety

Earlier the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that officials in both the HSE and the Department of Health "wrongly assumed that the information had been passed on to the women."

“We now know [the information] was only passed on to a quarter of the women,” he said. “But that is the explanation I am being given."

“Those people will be before the Health Committee tomorrow and before the PAC (Public Accounts Committee) on Thursday and will be able to give explanations themselves.”

He insisted that, despite the failure to inform the women, the memos confirm that there were no concerns about patient safety raised with the Department.

“Those memos and documents confirm that there were no concerns about patient safety raised in these documents; no concerns about the ethicacy of the programme; no concerns about the accuracy of the programme; no concerns about the accuracy of any particular labs,” he said.

“The only issues that are dealt with in these documents relate to open disclosure – or rather the non-open disclosure.”

He said the issues were never raised with the Health Minister or the Secretary General of the Department of Health. 

HSE Board

Minister Harris this morning received Cabinet approval to draft new legislation setting up a new independent HSE Board.

The position of HSE director general will also be replaced with a CEO who will be responsible to the new board.

The successor to former HSE director general Tony O’Brien who stepped down last week will become the first CEO.

The nine-person non-executive board will have the authority to carry out national HSE functions and will be directly accountable to the Health Minister of the day.

Governance

In a statement, Minister Harris said the structure in place at the HSE does not provide for adequate governance.

“The events of the past few weeks have once again made clear, there is an urgent need to restore public confidence in the HSE through a series of actions to strengthen the management, governance and accountability of the organisation,” he said.

“A key component of this is the establishment of a Board for the HSE.”

He said he will also seek Government approval to “reconfigure the health service to include a more strategic “national centre” carrying out national level functions, and with new regional bodies with responsibility for the delivery of integrated health and social care services.”

“I firmly believe that the appointment of a strong Board will help ensure robust governance of the HSE. We will work to have the Bill published as soon as possible,” he said.

“I look forward to working with members of the Oireachtas in bringing the Bill through the Houses this year.”

He said both actions should be considered “as part of a broader package of recommendations in the SláinteCare report to revise health structures.”

SláinteCare

This afternoon, Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall welcomed the move.

Deputy Shortall chaired the Oireachtas Future of Healthcare Committee that called for radical transformation of the health service and establishment of a universal, single-tiered service, delivered on medical need and not on ability to pay.

This afternoon, she urged her fellow politicians to move beyond outrage and start implementing actions.

“What has happened in relation to Cervical Check has been shocking,” she said.

“But at a political level and right across the board there is a responsibility on politicians to actually implement the legislation that is required to bring about the accountability that everybody is talking about.

“Outrage and condemnation will not achieve that.”

She again called for the SláinteCare plan to be implemented as soon as possible.

Cervical Check scandal

The HSE confirmed this morning that 18 women affected by the crisis have since died.

A total of 209 women have been 'directly affected' by the controversy, with the audit having found that their screening test could have provided a different result and recommended earlier follow-up.

The HSE says it has now made contact with 203 women or their families.

Reporting from Sean Defoe ...