I thank the Deputy for his question and acknowledge the significant advocacy work he has done in this area. The unprecedented demand for cervical screening in 2018 owing to understandable concerns of women, as well as an increased uptake of screening, has led to long and very regrettable delays in the reporting of results. The fact that new women have opted into the programme for the first time is important. The HSE has advised me that results are being reported on average within 22 weeks of the test being taken. As with all averages, some case results are reported in a much shorter period, while in other cases, the period is longer. Addressing these delays is a top priority for me, my Department and the HSE. The HSE is working actively to manage the issue and identify additional capacity, where possible. However, the global shortage of cytology capacity must be borne in mind as it means that this is very challenging.
To provide the information the Deputy seeks, in particular, I note that, clinically, the HSE has advised that the natural history of cervical cancer indicates that the disease will normally develop over a period of ten to 15 years. Owing to this very fact, it is important that any woman of screening age attend for cervical screening when she is invited to do so. In that context, the current reporting time for cervical screening results, while absolutely undesirable and regrettable, poses a very low risk to women. As the Deputy knows, false negatives are inherent in all cervical screening programmes and screening cannot prevent all cancers. However, cervical screening saves lives. Regular smear testing is the most important thing a woman can do to prevent cervical cancer, which is why my focus is on ensuring the continuation of the screening programme and that the current challenges in relation to smear test turnaround times are addressed.
I am obviously not a medic, but the medical advice I have been given is that the delays pose a very low clinical risk to women. Obviously, I want to see the delays continue to reduce. I do not find the current delays acceptable, but I want the Deputy to know, as I think he does, having come to know a lot of the people working on this issue in the HSE very well in the last while, that they are doing everything possible to identify additional capacity. I will certainly keep the Deputy and others informed as it comes on stream.