I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that over the last ten years the national CervicalCheck programme has made a very significant contribution to public health and that it has been effective in reducing cervical cancer rates since its inception. More than 1 million women aged between 25 and 60 years were screened in its first ten years. The participation rate is close to 80%, which is on a par with some of the best programmes across the globe. In the first ten years of CervicalCheck an estimated 65,000 cases of high-grade pre-cancer were detected. Cervical cancer rates, which had been rising year on year before the CervicalCheck programme began, have been reducing by 7% per year.
The decision of the Minister for Health in April 2018 to offer free smear tests out of schedule to every woman who wanted one has clearly damaged this programme and put it under enormous strain. Some 79,500 women are now waiting for results and the backlog is getting worse as a result of that decision. Some have been waiting up to 33 weeks. Some 71,000 women have been waiting longer than four weeks. The HSE says that two thirds of the backlog is due to the decision on free testing. The introduction of the new HPV test, which will be far more accurate and precise, has been delayed indefinitely.
In a submission to the Joint Committee on Health, the former clinical director of CervicalCheck, Dr. Gráinne Flannelly, confirmed that prior to the Minister's decision and his tweet giving the go-ahead on the Saturday afternoon in question, a Department of Health official contacted the screening service to discuss this proposal. Dr. Flannelly immediately advised against the decision, saying that, among other issues she instanced, it would fundamentally undermine the programme, that the laboratories would not have sufficient capacity and that waiting times would be longer. Within the hour the Department of Health responded by saying that the decision was to proceed with this policy in any event. This contradicts flatly the assertions made to this House by the Minister who has said in answer to parliamentary questions that neither he nor his officials were advised in advance of this decision.
Deputies Donnelly and Lisa Chambers and I have been asking questions on this since January. It has taken us three months to get to this point. Some specific questions were simply avoided and were not answered. The Minister said that neither he nor his officials received advice that recommended against these tests in advance of the decision. His officials did receive advice from the clinical director, Dr. Gráinne Flannelly, that this would undermine the programme. In the committee Deputy Lisa Chambers asked the Minister whether any clinical expert or any of his officials advised him against his decision and he said that, to his recollection, they had not. He doubled down on this assertion in replies to subsequent parliamentary questions.
I put it to the Taoiseach that there are two elements to this. The programme has been damaged. It is a stark illustration of how a very poor decision can be damaging to public health. The truth needs to be told in this House. Questions need to be answered comprehensively and the full truth told about the exact sequence of events that occurred. I ask the Taoiseach to ask the Minister for Health to come to the House and give a comprehensive statement outlining the full sequence of events leading to his decision and the interactions between his Department and CervicalCheck.