Last April and May, the CervicalCheck controversy shook our nation's faith in our health service right to core. The heartbreaking stories of the families, and their courage and dignity in the face of what was facing them was seared on all our minds at the time. The Government and the Minister for Health made many promises in the immediate days and weeks after the controversy broke. It appears now, however, that the gap between those promises and their actual delivery is one into which thousands of women are beginning to fall.
Yesterday, Deputy Micheál Martin raised the impact of increased smear test demand causing backlogs, delay and, ultimately, invalidating several tests because of missed expiry dates. The Taoiseach in response would not or could not give a figure for the number of recall tests as a consequence of those missed dates, despite the fact that my colleague, Deputy Lisa Chambers, had been asking questions at the beginning of December on this issue. Last night, the HSE confirmed to “Morning Ireland” that 6,000 women would have to be recalled for a test as consequence. This underlines the scale of the problem. It is even worse than anybody would have thought yesterday.
This revelation, as well as the manner in which it came out, is once again causing concern. The Government has failed to draw a clear line under the controversy. It made significant promises but did not put the necessary resources in place to back them up. Now, we are in a situation of concern.
On 10 January 2019, through a freedom of information request published in journal.ie, we learned the chief executive officer of Sonic Healthcare, which runs Medlab Pathology and which handles 50% of samples sent in through CervicalCheck, wrote to the Minister for Health on 15 June 2018 looking for what it termed his urgent intervention to address the unprecedented number of samples. It warned him that without immediate action it believed the future viability of the cervical screening programme would be in jeopardy. The Minister, however, did not act with any urgency about this.
On 18 October 2018, Deputy O'Reilly asked the Tánaiste during Leaders’ Questions about the issue and the backlogs. Again, the Tánaiste acknowledged there was a difficulty, gave words of comfort but nothing came of that in terms of extra resources or an action plan.
The hike in demand as a consequence of the changes last May has led to a massive delay and is undermining the system. We all believe in this essentially important scheme and want to restore confidence in it. Once again, it is under significant pressure, however. A rushed decision, not backed up by proper resources, has us back at this point again. The Minister, despite many warnings, has put his head in the sand about dealing with it.
How long have the Minister for Health and the Government known of the need for a recall test of the 6,000 women in question? When was the Taoiseach informed about that particular figure? What measures is the Government taking? I was in contact with GPs this morning. The first they heard about this issue was on “Morning Ireland” this morning. They are the first port of call for people who hear that story. What actions is the Government taking in this regard? Will the Minister for Health publish all of the medical advice he received before he took the decision to launch the free smear test process? Will he come into the House to take questions from health spokespersons on every aspect of this issue? More importantly, will he take questions on his plans to restore confidence in this considerably important programme?