Aontú leadar, Peadar Tóibín TD has called for the reopening of cancer screening programmes as a matter of urgency and expressed his shock at the fact that the HSE are advertising cervical check services which they know have been cancelled by the government.

Deputy Tóibín said: “Back in March a decision was made to cancel cancer screening services. This decision was not revealed to the public or the Oireachtas at the time and it wasn’t until about a month later that the situation hit the headlines. Last week in the Dáil I asked the Health Minister if he had any involvement or knowledge of that decision and he told me that the National Public Health Emergency team made the decision with his “110 percent support”. I’ve been raising concerns for some time now about non-covid related morbidity and mortality. The typical response from the Department of Health whenever such concerns are raised is to emphasise the importance of going to your GP if you are ill – not to be afraid of hospital or medical settings and ensure that you seek assistance. This narrative almost suggests that members of the public are to blame for the non-covid mortality rate spike”.

Deputy Tóibín continued: “However, we now know that the department and the Minister were aware of a decision to cancel many medical appointments and procedures including cervical check and breast check screening, and yet continued to peddle the narrative that the public were at fault for their own demise. What I discovered in recent days is even more shocking – the HSE actually continued to advertise smear testing, even though a conscious decision had been made to cancel screening. When one clicks on this online ad, as I did, the advertisement suggests that screening is still taking place and all you need to do is phone your GP. I am beginning to think that there was an attempt by the department and HSE to keep up appearances on this front. We’re talking about women’s lives here, spin should not be the priority. Why advertise a service which had been cancelled? Is this a case of driving potential cancer patients down a cul de sac, and pretending everything is grand? I have asked the Health Minister to tell me how much money has been spent to date on advertising a service which doesn’t exist”.

“We know that up to 200,000 women are waiting for screenings. The chief executive of the National Screening Service, NSS, has warned that when the screening restarts the capacity will only be 50% of the pre-covid capacity. I am deeply worried that we could be facing a second wave of cancer scandals. There will be a backlog in the system, and it will be some time before that backlog is cleared. Soon hairdressers, pubs and restaurants will be open again but no indication yet from the Minister about the return of vital medical procedures and cancer testing which save many, many lives. The decision regarding the reopening of testing needs to be made hastily – the women of this country cannot afford to wait another few weeks. I fear we will see a rise in non-covid deaths in the months and years to come, as a result of the pausing of screening, these deaths will not appear in daily statistics, and only in the future, with hindsight, will we come to recognise this and regret it”, concluded Deputy Tóibín.

Meanwhile patient advocate/ campaigner Sharon Butler Hughes who last year exposed the cervical check delays that led to the MacCraith report in August has joined Deputy Tóibín in calling for all cancer services including cervical check to be resumed immediately.

Ms Butler Hughes said: “I am horrified that cancer screening has been cancelled since March, these are vital services that can save the lives of Irish men & women with early detection. The first recommendation of the report was to put women first and this is anything but that.  Before the pandemic we had only just returned to normal wait times for results since the cervical check debacle was exposed in April 2018, the government & the HSE need to learn the lessons from the past and put the patient first”.