The acting boss of Ireland’s Health Service Executive has apologised to women directly affected by the cervical screening controversy and to all women of Ireland who have been frightened and concerned.

Interim director general Mr John Connaghan also apologised for the confusion and alarm created in relation to the Cervical Check screening programme, caused by the failure to communicate with the women affected.

“This failure has ultimately impacted on every female in Ireland, their families, their spouses and their children,” he said.

Inaccurate smear test results and the failure to inform some patients of these results has caused enormous controversy.

It emerged last month that an audit by Cervical Check of 1,482 women diagnosed with cervical cancer since 2008 had found potential errors in earlier smear tests in 209 of the cases, with results showing no abnormalities when they should have flagged a cancer warning.

While screening tests are not 100% accurate, the fact the majority of the affected patients were not told of the outcome of the audit has prompted a wave of public anger.

Of the 209 women, 18 have since died.

Mr Connaghan took up the role after the resignation of Tony O’Brien last week over the matter.

“While the results of the audit were communicated to the relevant clinicians the arrangements thereafter appear to have broken down,” Mr Connaghan told a parliamentary health committee.

“The outcome was that a large proportion of women were not told about either the audit itself or the results for them as individuals.”

Public confidence in the Cervical Check programme has been undermined as a result, he said.

The health department’s chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said no minister was informed in 2016 of the delays in telling women about the audit results.

He added that the department was not aware of the issues until the controversy arose last month.

“Let me spell it out clearly; firstly, no Minister was advised,” he said. “Secondly, the decision not to escalate was a fair and reasonable decision.”

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan from the Health Service Executive, during a press conference to address public concern over Ireland's cervical screening programme (Niall Carson/PA)
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan (Niall Carson/PA)

Dr Holohan said it was reasonable because the information provided in the briefing notes provided by the HSE to the Department was evidence of ongoing improvement to how the service was being delivered, rather than the identification of a problem which required escalation to ministerial level.”

He told the committee he could not recall a time when patients were gripped with such widespread fear and concern as now.

The secretary general of the health department said the department was not aware of the widespread non-disclosure of information to patients from Cervical Check.

Mr Jim Breslin said their actions might have been much different if they had been informed.

“I believe a reasonable approach was taken by the Department at the time,” he said.

He added: “Had the subsequent widespread non-disclosure been escalated by Cervical Check within the HSE and raised within the department this would have triggered a major concern and a much different attitude.”

The issue came to light last month when Vicky Phelan, a 43-year-old mother-of-two from Co Limerick, settled a High Court action for 2.5 million euro (£2.2 million) after being incorrectly told in 2011 that her smear test had given a negative result for cancer.

In 2014 she was diagnosed with cancer but only told of the false negative last September.