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Vicky Phelan and Stephen Teap accuse health officials of 'cover-up' in strong speeches to PAC

Update: 7.55pm Two of the most high-profile victims of the cervical cancer tests scandal have called on 35 senior HSE and Department of Health officials who knew what happened in 2016 to be removed from power while investigations take place, writes Fiachra O'Cionnaith.

Limerick mother Vicky Phelan, who has months to live, and Cork father Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene died last year, insisted on the move as they accused officials of a "cover-up" and demanded an immediate "random" audit of all Cervical Check tests.

Vicky Phelan and Stephen Teap arriving at Leinster House today. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

Speaking during a specially arranged two-hour meeting of the Dáil's cross-party public accounts committee, two of the public faces of the cervical cancer crisis said they want clear actions to be taken in response to the scandal.

Asked by Labour TD Alan Kelly what specifically this means after he pointed out 122-pages of documents released on Tuesday show 35 senior officials knew of the crisis two years ago, both Ms Phelan and Mr Teap said no one named in the files should remain in power.

"Yes, 100%," Ms Phelan said when asked if they should be removed while investigations take place.

[quote]"In the same way [former HSE director general] Tony O'Brien is now out of position. It needs to be followed through. If it's 35 people, so be it. They can't remain in positions of power. It's a scandal, people are dead," said Mr Teap.[/quote]

"Clearly they've proven time and again they're incapable of passing on information. They should be removed, but I wouldn't be letting them go too far, they still have to answer questions," he added when asked later if they should remain by Fine Gael TD Peter Burke.

During the same meeting, Ms Phelan and Mr Teap also told PAC members they believe there has been an orchestrated "cover-up" of what happened by HSE and Department of Health officials, and that a culture of "deny" has overtaken patient care.

Asked by Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane about the cover-up claims, Ms Phelan's solicitor Cian O'Carrol said while it is an "emotive" term, "from the documentation you can clearly see there was a co-ordinated plan to deny people information".

Similarly, Mr Teap said "information was clearly withheld" from both himself, his wife, his family and his family doctor, and that there is no other explanation as to why.

Ms Phelan and Mr Teap also agreed with Fine Gael TD Kate O'Connell they want to see a "random" audit of all Cervical Check smear tests over the past decade set up to find out if more than the 209 women known so far have been affected.

Asked about the issue by Ms O'Connell, Mr Teap said he has been "calling for that" to "alleviate the fear of women in Ireland".

"They are absolutely terrified. When you hear of Irene's story, two smears missed and a woman dead, the HSE have duty of care to do that quickly," he said.

The PAC meeting heard both cervical cancer victims say that despite Government and HSE promises, there has been next to no support services put in place and that they were in effect told what happened "and then nothing, goodbye".

Ms Phelan said the sole reason she and other victims are telling their stories is to ensure "accountability, not revenge", adding:

"If I die, I do not want it to be in vain."

Update: 5.30pm: Vicky Phelan has told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that she does not want to "die in vain" and that she wants to ensure that cases like hers never happen again.

Ms Phelan and Stephen Teap are speaking before a special sitting of the Committee this evening.

Ms Phelan told the Committee she is not looking for revenge, but wants rules to be in place within the HSE that will prevent the same mistakes occurring again.

Ms Phelan, whose case brought the CervicalCheck scandal to national attention has described in detail the gruelling medical treatment she has had to undergo for her cervical cancer.

She also outlined how a 2011 smear test produced a false negative result.

Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene was one of the 18 women who have died of cervical cancer not knowing that her smear tests were incorrect, is also sharing his story this evening.

Watch it live here:

Update 12.54pm: In the Dáil, the Minister for Education Richard Bruton has said it is very clear that there have been failures over the cervical scandal and the Government is seeking to resolve them.

Both Fianna Fáil's Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty challenged Minister Bruton during Leader's Questions.

Minister Bruton responded to say there will be changes.

He said: "I think it's very clear, and I think everyone accepts in this house (Dáil) that there have been failures in this situation and I think it raises issues about the longer term accountability of the HSE.

"The Minister has signalled that he will be introducing legislative change to change the oversight mechanisms for the HSE and the house will have ample opportunity discuss how we best do that."

He also told the Dáil that it was "appalling" that women were kept in the dark about the results of their audited smear tests, writes Elaine Loughlin of the Irish Examiner.

Questions have been raised in the Dáil as to whether the decision not to introduce mandatory open disclosure was linked to the CervicalCheck scandal.

Opposition parties have pressed the Government on the fact that it was decided not to introduce mandatory disclosure around the same time as letters were being sent out to doctors informing them of audits that had been carried out on smear checks relating to their patients.

Documents released this week and last week reveal that the chief medical medical officer Dr Tony Holohan was aware of this and received regular updates throughout 2016.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has pointed out that there was a "circumvention" of open disclosure.

"Is there any link between that and the then Minister for Health Leo Varadkar in not to proceed with his original commitment to introduce mandatory disclosure?" Mr Martin asked.

This was echoed by Sinn Féin deputy Dáil leader Pearse Doherty who said: "As Minister for Health, the Taoiseach promised to introduce mandatory open disclosure but following advice from the chief medical officer he changed his mind, that was the wrong advise and it was the wrong decision in 2016 and many women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal are now only being informed of their misread results."

Minister Bruton said a voluntary disclosure system was initially introduce to "encourage an cultural change where people could openly discuss failures where they do occur."

[quote]He said: "What we are moving to do in the Patient Safety Bill is that there will be mandatory disclosure, this will be legally binding so it will be an offence to fail to do so."[/quote]

Mr Bruton said said the documents between the HSE and the Department of Health on the CervicalCheck audits "categorically" showed that neither the Taoiseach or the current Minister for Health had any knowledge of non-disclosure.

"So it cannot be linked to any decision that was made by either Minister or the Oireachtas.

"There can be no link because no information was made available to the Ministers concerned," said Mr Bruton.

Meanwhile at the Health committee, Stephanie O'Keeffe, National Director for Health and Wellbeing, has said the HSE did not know about non-disclosure.

She said: "None of the usual assurance mechanisms that you have as a National Director and a senior manager told me that there was a difficulty between the letters being issued and the communication to patients."

Earlier: Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said the Government cannot order Oireachtas committees to stop investigating the cervical cancer scandal, despite concerns an independent expert examining the crisis the dual questioning is distracting witnesses, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

Mr Coveney said any attempts by ministers to freeze Oireachtas committee investigations into what has happened could "back-fire" just 24 hours after scoping review chair Dr Gabriel Scally called for space to allow him to do his work.

Speaking on The Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk radio, Mr Coveney said he understood Dr Scally's reasoning for writing to the Department of Health's secretary general Jim Breslin asking him to stop committees from questioning witnesses.

However, despite the need to give the official scoping review space to examine the situation, Mr Coveney said the reality is it would be almost impossible for the Government to block politicians from continuing their work.

"Well I think first of all Oireachtas committees need to be given an opportunity to respond as they see fit. I think people would respond negatively if we were to tell them how to act. They need to make their own judgements here.

"What Dr Gabriel Scally is saying is he wants to go on with his job, and he needs the full attention of the HSE, the Department of Health and anyone else.

"But, because there are multiple conversations going on, he's suggesting this is too much of a distraction," Mr Coveney said.

11.05am: Decision not to tell Minister of CervicalCheck audit was 'fair and reasonable', Health Committee hears

The Chief Medical Officer in the Department of Health says it was "fair and reasonable" not to flag news of the CervicalCheck audit of cancer tests with the Minister in 2016.

Documents have shown the Department was aware of the audit of false negative smear tests two years ago.

209 women developed cervical cancer after receiving a false negative in their tests and 18 of them have since died.

Chief Medical Officer with the Department of Health Dr Tony Holohan told an Oireachtas committee they believed there was no need to escalate the news in 2016.

Dr Holahan said: "No Minister was advised and the decision not to escalate was at the time a fair and reasonable decision based on, at the time, the information available to the department.

"It was reasonable because the information provided to the department in briefing notes from the HSE was evidence to us, and interpreted as ongoing improvements in how the service was being delivered rather than the identification of problems that might require escalation."

Chief Medical Officer with the Department of Health Dr Tony Holohan.

The interim director general of the HSE, John Connaghan, has acknowledged and apologised for the confusion and alarm which has been created in relation to the CervicalCheck Programme as a result of the failure to communicate with the women affected.

Mr Connaghan said: "This failure has ultimately impacted on every female in Ireland, their families, their spouses and their children."

He added that both CervicalCheck and the HSE have failed by any measure.

"I want to sincerely apologise on behalf of the HSE and CervicalCheck to the women and their families who have been directly affected by what has happened and to all the women of Ireland who have been understandably frightened and concerned by what they have read and heard," Mr Connaghan said.

"We must learn lessons from what has happened."

He finished by making four pledges.

    The four pledges made by the interim director general of the HSE, John Connaghan

  • 1. We will move swiftly and with compassion to provide effective support packages to the women and families who require support. We will do that with the minimum of fuss and bureaucracy and with empathy.
  • 2. We will fully openly and transparently co-operate with the Scally Inquiry, the International Expert Panel Review and any subsequent inquiries.
  • 3. If there is a requirement to hold individuals to account on a personal basis we will do so. In that respect the Scally Inquiry and subsequent inquiries will be important for the independence of their views and to allow due process and fair procedures to be followed.
  • 4. We will learn lessons from recent weeks not least the ability to say sorry. Patients need to know what happened, what can be done to deal with any harm and what will be done to prevent someone else being harmed.

It was revealed yesterday that Dr Gabriel Scally - who is leading the scoping inquiry into the controversy - believes the Oireachtas hearings could impact his work.

He has warned he may have issues fulfilling his remit if many of the witnesses are constantly distracted appearing before different committees.

He raised concerns that the 'fevered atmosphere' around the situation may affect the investigation.

However, Deputy Fleming says the PAC wants answers for those affected - and says he believes they're going to help Dr Scally in his work.

He said: "What's happening in the Oireachtas over the last couple of weeks is bringing information into the public arena... it's making the HSE and the Department of Health check their files.

"I think it's important that the public have some assurance in the near-term as to where [things] stand on this issue.

He added: "Once we have a scoping inquiry, once we have a commission of investigation... you and I know that's three years down the road before we got a result from that."

- Digital Desk