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The Minister for Health, Simon Harris TD, has commended Vicky Phelan, whose cervical cancer is now terminal, for highlighting, “a number of major weaknesses in relation to how people experience our health service”.

Details relating to the CervicalCheck scandal emerged last week when Ms Phelan settled a High Court action against a US laboratory for €2.5 million due to incorrect smear test results from 2011.

The HSE has confirmed that 17 women whose cases were reviewed as part of an audit into the scheme have died and that, since 2008, a total 1,482 cases of cervical cancer have been notified to the CervicalCheck programme.

A review was warranted in 442 cases and, of those cases, 206 cytology reviews indicated a different result that would have prompted an investigation to occur at an earlier stage.

Of these cases under scrutiny, the HSE’s Serious Incident Management Team has found that just 46 women were informed about the history of their smear tests.

Mr Harris expressed his determination to ensure that swift action will be taken to address these weaknesses and a plan for HIQA to commence a Section 9(2) statutory investigation, with all necessary powers, including examining the CervicalCheck screening programme, was approved by Cabinet yesterday (1st May).

He stated: “This investigation will place a particular focus on the quality assurance systems, clinical audit processes and the communications with patients. Under the auspices of this statutory investigation an International Peer Review Group will examine the cervical screening programme in Ireland against international best practice and standards. I will be asking HIQA to identify within its terms of reference any implications that may apply to other cancer screening programmes.

“In addition I am appointing an International Clinical Expert Panel to provide the women concerned with an individual clinical review. This Clinical Expert Panel will also produce an overall report to inform HIQA’s investigation and the work of the International Peer Review Group. A liaison nurse specialist will co-ordinate the work of the Expert Panel and will identify and ensure the provision of any required supports for the women involved. It is anticipated that the work of the Expert Group will be complete as soon as possible”, he continued.

The Minister for Health concluded: “It is my hope and expectation that these steps will ensure the integrity of the cervical screening programme at the same time as providing learning for all cancer screening programmes. These programmes are an important component of the progress that we have made over the last 10 years in cancer survivorship for our citizens. I am committed to the further development of our cancer services and to delivering the ambitious roadmap set out for these services as outlined in the National Cancer Strategy, which I launched last year”.