Opposition politicians have called on the Government to restart cancer screening programmes which have been put on hold as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Fianna Fáil's Health Spokesperson Stephen Donnelly told the Dáil today that closing screening services for three months has meant that around 170,000 screenings have not happened. 

"We all back the screening services, we know early detection saves lives and also unfortunately delayed detection can cost lives."

He said many doctors and labs believe the services can open now and he said they were anxious to have a date for reopening. 

Deputy Donnelly quoted one GP who said: "We have a tentative date for the opening of hairdressers and pubs but not for cancer screening - it's alarming and extremely concerning."

Fianna Fáil TD Mary Butler pointed out that cancer screening services are extremely important for women's health and need to be reopened as soon as possible.

She said women were phoning her on a regular basis concerned about the issue of cancer screening services.

She said the earlier you catch cancer the easier it is to treat - she said if people do not get their diagnosis they can be in serious trouble down the line. 

In response, Minister for Health Simon Harris said that the four screening service programmes will report on their final plans on restarting in the coming days. 

"I had a very good meeting with the HSE CEO and Chief Clinical Officer Doctor Colm Henry yesterday I believe, a very good meeting today with the Chief Executive of the National Screening Service as well."

However, he said there is a "complexity" in relation to getting screening services right and he said it has to be safe for patients and staff.  

The Minister said screening services can often involve healthy people volunteering to come forward into the health service. 

"Screening can often involve tests or examinations which can present challenges for staff running the programmes in light of the need to comply with physical distancing measures."

He said there has been a working group established and he said they were reviewing the individual programme plans for recommencement.

He said it was developing a framework to support the safe restart of all four programmes. 

Labour Leader Alan Kelly said it was "no good" for the minister to say he had a good meeting with the National Screening Director unless there is a date. 

"Women around the country, men around the country know when they will be able to buy a pint but they don't know when screening services will begin and we all know there are going to be challenges but they don't know when they will begin. And that is just down right ridiculous and wrong."

Sinn Féin's Health Spokesperson Louise O'Reilly called for a commitment that missed care will be caught up on. She also called for a catch up programme and an information programme for women. 

"A lot of us will be nervous and anxious going back to the screening service, we know how important it is. We have spoken at length about it."

Minister Harris said he would not give a commitment on how the programme will be resumed because he said it would have to be clinician led. 

The Minister agreed that an information programme for people who used the screening programmes was vital.

"I would like to see the Irish Cancer Society, the 221+ group, the Marie Keating Foundation invited in to meet the screening service. I know many of them are in contact and I have asked that that happens."