By Bill Heaney
The SNP government have been called out over the “huge scandal” involving errors in the cervical cancer screening programme for women in Scdotland.
Public Health Minister Maree Todd apologised to MSPs for telling them she “inadvertently said that 2,000 records were to be reviewed, when I should have said 200,000”.
She added: “The women are absolutely at the heart of the decision. I put on the record how heart sorry I am that we are in this situation.
“Our concern for the women who have been affected and their families, and the need for sensitive care and communication, have been at the heart of development of our response to the situation.
“I assure members that the women will be kept informed about how we progress and how the situation unfolds.”
Dumbarton MSP and Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie, pictured right, told parliament: “The matter remains, unfortunately, a huge scandal. Concerns were raised in 2015, 2016 and 2017. In 2016, there were 29 inappropriate exclusions and in 2017, there were 11 inappropriate exclusions.
“Why were all the cases of women who were wrongly excluded from cervical cancer screening not picked up after the 2016 audit or, indeed, after the 2017 audit? Why did we have to force that information from the Government using freedom of information requests?
“Why did we need to wait until another case was discovered in December 2020 for that wider review? On what basis does the minister say it was believed that all issues were resolved, when clearly they were not and recommendations were ignored?”
The SNP’s obession with secrecy and c over-up appears to be at the heart of this problem.
Ms Baillie said: “After her previous statement, I specifically asked the minister why the issue was not picked up by previous audits and her response was that ‘no cases were found through that national audit system until 2020’.—[Official Report, 24 June 2021; c 30.]
“That is patently inaccurate, given the previous audits. I hope that the minister will correct the parliamentary record.
“However, more important is that we will never know whether that gross oversight contributed to the deaths of three women who deserved so much better.
“Will the minister apologise for the Scottish Government’s failure and assure the chamber that it will never happen again?”
Ms Todd, pictured left, replied: “The audits, incidents and reviews that previously took place were all more limited in scope, with very different starting points from the current incident and a narrower focus of investigation.
“Because of that, those historical audits could not have picked up the wider issues that we have now identified.
“In particular, none of the previous reviews would have picked up the small number of cases that first brought the incident to light when they were discovered by one health board in December 2020.
“Furthermore, and importantly, there was consensus among Scottish screening exercises that the errors that had been identified in the earlier audits had been corrected, and that the issues that had caused them had been resolved. We have been advised by clinicians who are involved in the screening programme that, given the available evidence at the time, the audits were considered to be an appropriate and proportionate response.
“However, like Jackie Baillie, with the benefit of hindsight, I can say that it is important to ask whether opportunities were missed to look further and to identify wider issues earlier. I understand that and agree that questions can and should be asked about whether opportunities were missed, which is why we are dealing with the matter as we are.
“I, too, want the questions to be answered, which is why I have commissioned Healthcare Improvement Scotland to undertake a thorough review of the processes, systems and governance of exclusions in the cervical screening programme.
“That will include understanding how the processes have developed over time, and learning lessons from past audits and the adverse events. That will help to establish whether the issues could have been uncovered sooner.”
Tory MSP Sandesh Gulhane said: “Cervical screening is safe, effective and saves women’s lives. I urge women, or anyone with a uterus, please, not to lose confidence but to attend the screening programme. To give women reassurance, can the minister say what safeguards were put in place in June to prevent such an incident from happening again, and when an audit will be run to find out whether it has happened again?
Ms Todd told her: “I confirm that, as soon as the issue was discovered, immediate steps were taken to ensure that no one else was excluded in error from the programme. Cervical screening labs will no longer add hysterectomy information without confirmation from the operating gynaecologist that the cervix was completely removed during a hysterectomy procedure.
“Also, at present, general practitioners can no longer add exclusions; that will remain the case until we can be absolutely assured that a robust process is in place to verify GP exclusions.
“Healthcare Improvement Scotland has been commissioned to conduct a full review of the incident. It will look at the governance processes and at whether there were opportunities to learn about the scale of the incident earlier than we did.
“I am sure that the review will fruitfully bring forward suggestions on how we can make sure that it never happens again.”