CervicalCheck apology is beginning of a healing process

22 October 2019

In April 2018, when Vicky Phelan stood outside the High Court following her decision not to sign a confidentiality agreement regarding her case, she changed Irish healthcare provision forever. Her campaign for justice since then has been one of the most courageous any of us and certainly I have ever seen.

When she attended the Public Accounts Committee a few weeks later along with fellow campaigner Stephen Teap, they opened a scandal to us that was unprecedented, complex and deeply troubling. I swore to them that day walking them to their taxi that I would do all I could to help them.

We as a State are today acknowledging that we let the women of Ireland down. That we let down the women affected by the cervical cancer scandal, that we let down their families. It is a watershed moment and I thank you Taoiseach for listening to the continuous requests I and others have made for this to happen and for meeting with the 221+ Group and patient representatives recently.

I want to acknowledge all the women present here in the gallery today and their families. I also want to acknowledge all the young people who will look back on what we are saying today and have been affected by it but are too young to fully understand it fully yet. I am particularly thinking of Noah and Oscar Teap. This will be a record for them and many others to record the mistakes that deprived them of a loved one. 

An apology isn’t going to bring back any of the women who have passed on, like Emma Mhic Mhathúna, or change the terminal diagnosis others have, or prevent the fact that some women such as Lorraine Walsh who can’t have children or make up for much of the medical complaints that many of the women have.

What it is though is the beginning of a healing process and finally we have a proper, informed official acknowledgements of the wrongdoings.

We have learnt so much since Vicky spoke outside the High Court. We have had the Scally and MacGrath reports. They have shed so much light on what happened. They have also raised ongoing questions regarding the Department of Health, HSE and healthcare professionals. I and others will continue to pursue those questions.  

We too in this chamber have questions to answer. Maybe though that is for another day.

However, one thing is very clear, the decision to outsource the labs work many years ago was the wrong one. In fairness to some TDs in this house, some of whom who are still here, they questioned it at the time. 

The labs weren’t fine. The quality assurance necessary wasn’t in place, the contracts were not being managed appropriately and the accreditation cannot be retrospective no matter what INAB argue. And I don’t think we have even found out everything we need to know still regarding the labs.

Today I am thinking hugely of Ruth Morrissey. Another lady who also had to take on the State to get justice and spend over two weeks in total in the High Court only to have her judgement appealed again. I stand in solidarity with her. It was said by you Taoiseach that no woman would have to go through what Vicky Phelan went through again. That no woman would have to face the adversarial setting of the High Court. It was an error, your error and I accept you eventually acknowledged that. The way she has been treated by the State is a disgrace and I’m thinking of her and her family today.

I want to in particular acknowledge the patient advocates who have worked so hard on behalf of the 221+ support group. Stephen Teap who lost his beautiful wife Irene and Lorraine Walsh who lost the opportunity to have children. Along with the amazing Vicky Phelan the work and advocacy they have done has been incredible. Three finer more decent and caring people I have never met. They deserve to be respected by the Department of Health in a way that has not been present to date. This must change. And they, along with other patient advocates deserve to be remunerated for their work.

The long battle has had some results. Better awareness of screening. A developing understanding amongst the public that screening is not diagnostic. The introduction of HPV screening. We need to solidly in this chamber row in behind the HPV vaccine, not just for the health benefits but so women like Laura Brennan are honoured properly by this State.

The provision of HPV vaccinations in schools for boys to help create herd immunity is another good step. Because we can get rid of cervical cancer in this country. Also we have all learned to question health professionals in a way that simply didn’t happen before. People are taking more control of their own healthcare and this is good. And of course we are in the process of ensuring open disclosure becomes ingrained in our healthcare provision.

There are many challenges ahead though. The implementation of all of the recommendations of the Scally report has to happen and quickly. The audit of cervical screening has stopped. This is not a good thing and the new audit must and I repeat must commence the day after the last one stopped. I keep asking this question Taoiseach and I have yet to get a guarantee on this.

We also need to bring in an optional low cost vaccination programme for older people to get the HPV vaccine. As Dr Doireann O’Leary, a Cork GP has pointed out, there is growing evidence that the vaccine is effective way past adolescence and beyond the age of 26.

Finally, the RCOG review needs to be completed. The fact that this is behind schedule and that there are issues with validating the data isn’t acceptable. The State must get this right Taoiseach, it cannot mess this up. At the moment it is in the process of doing just that. This cannot happen. When did an independent review have to be revalidated by the HSE? How can that happen? But that is exactly what is happening here.

Taoiseach, today has been a long-awaited day for the women of Ireland, particularly for those at the centre of the CervicalCheck scandal.

What has happened over the last two years to women and their families has been a black mark on our State’s history and if the right steps are taken, one that we won’t repeat. I know from talking to many of the people in the gallery today, that that is the legacy they want from today’s apology. That we have a screening programme we can be proud of; that we are open with our patients, that we tell them everything, that we give them the best care, that we look after them as citizens of our State. We must do that and if we do that will have the ultimate impact of this apology for all of this looking down on us from the gallery and watching these proceedings now and into the future.

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