I have asked specific questions for some time about the Minister for Health's decision last April to offer a free out-of-cycle smear test to every woman in the country who wanted one and about who advised him on the decision. I have been subject to obfuscation since I first began asking these questions in January. As a result of that decision, CervicalCheck has an enormous backlog of up to 80,000 people waiting up to 27 weeks to receive reports on their tests, while thousands of women have received letters to tell them to come back in because the tests had expired and proved to be invalid. We have moved from a situation where tests were provided within four to six weeks to one in which they take between four and six months. The Minister's decision was the major contributing factor to this unacceptable situation. Last week, the Joint Committee on Health revealed that the new HPV test has been indefinitely delayed because of the backlog. We learned from the The Lancet Oncology journal today that the new HPV test, combined with an uptake in the vaccine, would have a dramatic impact on the reduction of cervical cancer in this country and beyond, but its introduction has been delayed because of the backlog caused primarily by the Minister's decision last April.
Susan Mitchell wrote in last Sunday's edition of The Sunday Business Post that it was her understanding that the CervicalCheck team communicated its opposition to the provision of an additional smear test directly to the Department at a high level in advance of the offer being made. We now know that Professor Gráinne Flannelly, former clinical adviser at CervicalCheck, warned publicly of the inadvisability of this particular move during an interview. I listened to the Minister's interview last Saturday morning with Brendan O'Connor. I was taken aback when the Minister chose to launch an attack on the CervicalCheck team, stating that he had lost confidence in the people running CervicalCheck because of decisions on managing the audit, in response to a basic question of whether he had checked with CervicalCheck before making his decision. The Minister replied that he had not because he had lost confidence in the team over the audit and the communication of the audit.
We now know, however, that the audit decision was shared with the Department of Health. The CervicalCheck team did not make the decision on its own but rather in conjunction with the Department of Health officials and the chief medical officer. They were all part of the decision on how to communicate the audit. Irrespective of one's views on the terms of the decision on the audit, the CervicalCheck team did exceptional work over a decade in building up its programme and saving thousands of lives. The degree to which the Minister dumped on the team last Saturday morning and attempted to destroy its reputation is unacceptable and mean spirited. One cannot destroy the reputation and work of people who have committed to the programme for more than a decade. Many people in the medical world are dismayed at the cavalier dismissal of people who have worked in the field for a considerable time.
Did the CervicalCheck team communicate its opposition to the Minister's decision to someone at a senior level in the Department of Health? Does the Taoiseach now accept that the decision last May was a wrong decision without any clinical mandate? When can we expect the new HPV test to be introduced?