Susan Mitchell of The Sunday Business Post wrote at the weekend that last week was one of the worst in the history of the Irish health service. She was summing up the understandable anger at how Vicky Phelan was treated, the failure to tell women the truth about their misdiagnoses, forcing a sick woman through the courts and questions regarding the quality of our national cervical cancer screening programme. It is fair and objective to say that the response of the HSE directorate, the Department and the Minister in the early days compounded the crisis. Nobody appeared to be in charge and women were justifiably worried, anxious and angry.
Major issues have yet to be resolved. General practitioners, GPs, have yet to be properly advised, resourced and prepared to respond to the crisis. The help line has been way behind and has not been effective, as I know from people who contacted me over the weekend. Thousands of people are awaiting callbacks and, according to some reports we received this morning, some women were more worried after the calls than they were beforehand. Clearly, it is a rushed initiative that is not properly resourced. Many promises have been made. Will every woman who seeks a free smear test, as announced last week, get one? Is that the correct initial response? Does the capacity exist to do that? What criteria have been given to GPs to select and refer women for further smear tests? Surely, an initiative should be taken to proactively target women who are at higher risk of cervical cancer in an initial look-back exercise. There could be women walking around today who received false negatives and who actually have abnormalities and pre-cancerous cells. Some consideration must be given to a look-back programme that would focus on women at high risk.
We welcome the inquiry but, given the role of the Department, it should report back to the Taoiseach's office or to a different Department. There is precedent for that. While focusing on an inquiry, we must be conscious of the victims of this scandal, namely, the women whose screenings were misread on a number of occasions. We must listen to their voices. I was contacted by one of the 209 women this week. Her tests were missed on a number of occasions on an annual basis. She had to have a radical hysterectomy that could have been avoided. She was not told of this until late last week. She said, "The impact of finding out that cancerous cells were running around our systems for longer than we thought, in some cases years, due to the missed scans only raises fears of recurrence."
She does not want her medical team to be scapegoated and has stated:
My medical team are my only security. Whatever happens in this inquiry, any damage to them will damage me and I refuse to allow any further damage. Enough is enough and I want assurances that my consultant will be able to focus on me and my care and not on bureaucracy.