The offer of a free smear test to every woman in the country, regardless of whether they were due one or not, was the "appropriate decision", the Health Minister has told the Dáil.

Simon Harris said the announcement was made last May based on the advice of his officials, including the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) that it was an "appropriate step to take as part of the reassurance mechanism."

Fianna Fáil has repeatedly claimed that the Minister made the announcement for political reasons, against the best advice available to him, and that this has caused a backlog which has compromised the screening programme.

Minister Harris said when he was advised to stop the offer of a free smear in October, he immediately took steps to do that, leading to the offer ending in December.

The average waiting time for smear test results is now six months compared to two to three weeks previously. The Minister accepted that "an awful lot of the backlog is made up of people availing of the repeat smear test."

But he said that "nobody could have predicted the exact number of people who would go for this nor could anyone predict how long this public anxiety and concern would go on for."

Fianna Fáil's health spokesperson Stephen Donnelly claimed there is "documented evidence" to show that the Health Minister was repeatedly warned that an offer of a free smear test made in May 2018 was putting the cervical screening programme at risk.

He said the offer of a free test should have been ended sooner, which would have prevented delays and thereby prevented potential risks to women.

Mr Donnelly said that on 15 June 2018, the CEO of Sonic Healthcare, which runs one of the testing labs in Dublin, wrote to the Minister saying "urgent intervention was needed to cope with increased demand."

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The correspondence warned that there was a five fold increase in the requested smear tests, and the correspondence was "essentially asking to stop with the free smear test, he even offered to fly to Dublin to meet you," Mr Donnelly said.

He said that in August 2018, GPs wrote to the Minister warning that a "chronic backlog was putting the quality and accuracy of checks at risk."

The Minister accepted that a number of people said the repeat smear test was not a good idea but "all of them - from my calcualation - significantly after the decision was made."

Independents 4 Change  TD Clare Daly accused others of scaremongering on the issue.

"Everybody in here on all sides of the House - supported and egged on by the media -  have created a situation now here across the country that the trust of women in our public screening system has been seriously eroded and seriously damaged," she said. "When you want someone to take up that programme, that is an incredibly serious situation."