State inquiry into cancer scandal
■ Phelan reveals treatment has seen ‘significant’ tumour shrinking
A full commission of investigation into the cervical cancer scandal is to be established in September, Health Minister Simon Harris has confirmed.
It came as Vicky Phelan revealed there has been “significant” shrinking of her tumours after just three treatments of the drug pembrolizumab through a clinical trial.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also suggested up to 200 more women could be affected by the cervical cancer tests scandal after it was revealed the number of women taking legal action has surged to 46 since the crisis emerged.
Speaking to reporters in Madrid, Mr Varadkar said: “I don’t want to speculate on that number yet but it will be obviously more than zero but probably less than 100, less than 200.”
Mr Harris said a commission of investigation will go ahead from the autumn, while the scoping inquiring being carried out by Dr Gabriel Scally would continue throughout the summer months.
“I am concerned that there seems to be a view that there may be a commission or there won’t be a commission, let me be very clear there will be a commission of inquiry and I would like to set that inquiry up in September,” said Mr Harris.
“I believe that a commission of investigation is needed to get to the bottom of many of the issues, particular issues in relation to accountability, who knew what where and when. That’s not Dr Scally’s job and Dr Scally is very clear on that.”
However, Mr Harris said setting up a commission immediately, as called for by members of the opposition, would not be right.
“If you just threw everything into a commission now, I think there is a legitimate concern that that would go on and on,” he said.
The news came as cervical cancer patient Ms Phelan revealed that there has been “significant” shrinking of her cancer tumours after just three treatments of the drug pembrolizumab through a clinical trial.
The drug, which she has been taking under its trade name Keytruda, prompted her oncologist to describe the development as “absolutely fantastic news”.
She also told RTE’s Ray D’Arcy Show that her doctor had said: “You don’t realise how big this is for cancer and for cancer patients.”
In May2 016,pembro liz um ab, alongside another drug, nivolumab, was at the centre of controversy when oncologists criticised delays in funding the treatments here, amid a row between the HSE and the drug manufacturers over the cost of the treatment.
On the current scoping exercise, Ms Phelan said: “I am a little frustrated at the moment, I thought we would be further along at this stage.”
It has also emerged that at least 46 women are taking legal action against the State over botched cancer screening tests.
The figures from the State Claims Agency director Ciaran Breen were revealed as a HSE official predicted the 209 women already known to be affected by the cervical cancer crisis will rise significantly over the coming months.
Speaking during a fourhour meeting with the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, Mr Breen said before Ms Phelan’s High Court case in mid-April, 11 women were in the process of taking cases against the State. In the weeks that have followed, that figure has surged to at least 46, with a number of other cases expected.
Mr Breen said that according to the latest figures, five women are taking cases against Cervical Check, including one case — Ms Phelan’s — which has been settled.
Against the backdrop of the CervicalCheck scandal, latest figures from the National Treatment Purchase Fund show almost 28,000 women are on gynaecology waiting lists, of whom in excess of 5,000 are waiting more than a year. Inevitably some of these women will have undiagnosed malignancies. They have yet to receive a first appointment at a consultant’s clinic.
The HSE’s interim director general denies that officials are trying to delay the Scally cervical cancer tests inquiry by failing to provide searchable records, amid growing fears that the State investigation is being blocked.
Interim director general John Connaghan issued the staunch HSE defence as he said electronic, searchable versions of the records were always available and as officials said that laboratory contracts key to the scandal will be released next week.
Speaking as another senior HSE official faced calls to resign after it emerged that he wrongly told politicians he never told the State Claims Agency all women affected were informed of what happened last year, Mr Connaghan said he wants all files to be made available to Gabriel Scally’s investigation.
Mr Connaghan said that due to “technical limitations”, 4,000 documents for the inquiry which could have been sent electronically, thereby making them searchable, were instead printed out and scanned, leading to a backlash over the move.
Mr Connaghan said the move could not be avoided due to the technical “barrier”.
However, he was immediately criticised by Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell, who said “there was a different kind of barrier — a human barrier”.
Facing questions from Labour TD Alan Kelly, Mr Connaghan said that due to the concerns raised by Dr Scally over accessing files he met with the head of the State inquiry yesterday and committed to providing all documents within 30 days.
Asked specifically what this includes amid claims from Mr Kelly that “if there was ever a row of events that symbolise the arse-covering in the HSE, it is this [the cervical cancer tests crisis]”, Mr Connaghan said that the file access will include the key contracts given to US laboratories which will be made public next week.
Meanwhile, another senior HSE official is facing calls to resign over the tests scandal after admitting that he wrongly told politicians last month that he never told the State Claims Agency that all women affected were told of what happened.
Mr Gleeson yesterday admitted that what he told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was incorrect, adding that he believed the initial question was about “another meeting I wasn’t involved in” and that “I certainly did not intend to create any confusion”.
However, Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane said it is clear Mr Gleeson’s position is untenable, and directly asking the HSE official if he should now resign.
Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said the incorrect records provided to the PAC in recent weeks means it is now fair to ask “how can we trust any information” given to the cross-party group by the HSE.
Similarly, Ms O’Connell said: “I just wonder what is the point of all of you” in senior HSE positions, adding: “I just think the whole lot of you should be sent packing.”