Fine doctors, failed leaders

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 July, 2004, 12:00am

The controversy over the government's handling of last year's Sars outbreak should have drawn to a close with the resignations of Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Yeoh Eng-kiong and Hospital Authority chairman Leong Che-hung. But some doctors' emotive reactions to the developments have kept the issue alive, to the chagrin of those involved.

Dr Leong's honorary post at the Hospital Authority was, by any measure, one of responsibility without power. He was not a minister under Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's brand of the accountability system. It was unfair to expect him to bear political responsibility. It is thus an act of integrity for him to resign voluntarily.

His move contrasts sharply with what some of the authority's medical consultants have done. In a feeble act to defend their masters, doctors mounted a signature campaign and placed an advert in defence of the two men. But they have made a fundamental mistake by mixing up the concepts of professionalism and political responsibility. To make matters worse, there have even been complaints from the rank and file that they were coerced into signing the statement.

The pair's contribution to the improvement of the local medical and health system has never been questioned. As a professional medical practitioner, Dr Yeoh has played a key role in raising the standard of medical services in Hong Kong over the past 33 years. But, wearing the hat of the minister responsible for the government's overall response to Sars, he must be held accountable for the mistakes and blunders.

In the aftermath of the Sars crisis, the public holds no grudges against the doctors. On the contrary, people are grateful for their performance. People are only unhappy with how the bureaucracy as a whole failed to respond swiftly. Dr Yeoh was targeted not as a medical professional, but because of the office he holds.

The morale of tens of thousands of Health Authority staff is now at stake. Its middle- and senior-ranking doctors who led the signature campaign should know better. Their reaction will only further alienate the frontline staff working under them. A polarised Hospital Authority will be detrimental to the well-being of staff, patients and the public at large.

People will never forget the medical professionals' selfless devotion in the fight against the deadly virus. But that is not a licence for the Health Authority to remain immune to all criticism. Various reports have already spotted its inadequacies, although the errors and deficiencies might not warrant heads rolling.

Even its chief executive, William Ho Shiu-wei, regards the campaign as inappropriate. He has issued an open letter urging his juniors to refrain from initiating any more signature campaigns. It is time that the professionals buried their egos and started refocusing on how to further improve services.

Hong Kong people are no longer politically unenlightened. They are well aware who should be held responsible for what. This will surely be reflected in the outcome of the Legislative Council election on September 12. Yet, as far as Sars is concerned, the issue should end here and now.

Meanwhile, Mr Tung is finding it hard to replace the two men. I understand that the Executive Council is now inclined to split Dr Yeoh's portfolios among other incumbent principal officials.

Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung is poised to be reassigned to become responsible for education as well as health, while his current duties will go to Secretary for Economic Development and Labour Stephen Ip Shu-kwan. The Social Welfare Department and the Department of Food and Environmental Hygiene could then be taken over by other principal officials.

Albert Cheng is a political commentator