Yeoh exit highlights failure of the system

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 July, 2004, 12:00am

The departure of health chief Yeoh Eng-kiong should bring to an end one of the most unhappy chapters in our city's history. His resignation was needed. It will now be much easier for the community to recover from the wounds inflicted by Sars.

Dr Yeoh had said it was up to Tung Chee-hwa - not him - to decide whether he should go. In the end, it was the minister himself who forced the issue. He deserves credit for shouldering responsibility and doing the right thing. It must have required character and courage. And it may set an example which others, perhaps in the Hospital Authority, will follow.

As public pressure mounted, it became increasingly difficult for Dr Yeoh to remain in place. The secretary for health, welfare and food had apologised many times for the mistakes made in handling the Sars outbreak last year. He had accepted responsibility. But events this week made it clear this would not be enough.

The minister came in for strong criticism in the Legislative Council's report, which followed a lengthy inquiry. His performance was described as unsatisfactory. He was blamed for not being sufficiently alert when Guangdong was hit by atypical pneumonia and for sending confusing signals to the community. Dr Yeoh was held responsible for the delay in listing Sars under quarantine laws and was said to have failed to adequately monitor the Hospital Authority. It put him in a position which was not easy to defend. And the major political parties called for him to go.

History may be kinder to Dr Yeoh. As the government-appointed panel stressed last year, he had to work within a terribly outdated and inefficient health system. It was simply not designed to cope with a crisis of this magnitude. The health minister worked hard and, no doubt, did his best. But this is of little comfort to the victims of Sars - those who lost loved ones or who are still suffering the consequences of infection. Understandably, they were not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

While Dr Yeoh remained in place, the feelings of discontent and dissatisfaction would linger. Now, hopefully, we can begin to move on.

Mr Tung's 'accountability system' played a part in Dr Yeoh's departure. Introduced with great fanfare two years ago, it is supposed to ensure that ministers take responsibility for their failures. But the manner in which the health chief left his post has highlighted the weakness of that system, rather than its strengths.

Sars infected 1,755 people in Hong Kong, killing 299. It left our airport and shopping malls all but deserted and took our economy to a new low. As the minister responsible for health, the public expected Dr Yeoh to be held accountable.

Mr Tung, however, resisted the calls for his trusted colleague to be sacked. This may have been fair to Dr Yeoh, but it did further damage to the already discredited ministerial system. And in the end, the result was the same. As with the resignation of Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee as secretary for security last year, Mr Tung could not bring himself to make political capital out of the departure of a valued member of his team. He showered Dr Yeoh with praise yesterday and said he was saddened by the minister's resignation. It looks as if, once again, this was a decision imposed upon Mr Tung rather than taken by him.

Questions must now be asked about the future of Mr Tung's ruling team - and of the 'accountability system' itself.

He had promised that this hand-picked group of high-powered political appointees would inject new thinking into his governance and deliver results.

Now, three of his closest colleagues have resigned amid intense public pressure - Mrs Ip, former finance chief Antony Leung Kam-chung and now Dr Yeoh.

The departure of the health minister will temporarily ease some of the pressure on Mr Tung. But in the longer term, he will need to think carefully about how to rebuild and restructure his governing team.