'Medics' worst fear was spreading Sars to our families'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 February, 2013, 4:14am

Health secretary Dr Ko Wing-man said he never thought being a doctor would involve the risk of getting killed one day by an infection he contracted at work.

Speaking about his feelings during the Sars outbreak a decade ago, he said medics' worst fear at the time was spreading the deadly disease to their loved ones at home.

"Our medical training teaches us how to treat patients. But unlike soldiers, doctors are not trained to handle threats against their own lives," said Ko.

"Before Sars, no medical staff ever thought that they would have to sacrifice their own life if they could not control an outbreak. I hope the valuable lesson of Sars will give medical staff stronger mental preparation towards their duty, in case they have to face the same circumstances again."

At the beginning of the crisis, the Hospital Authority was blamed for slow response and mismanagement.

Ko admits he suffered under huge pressure when he took over as the authority's temporary chief when its boss William Ho Shiu-wei contracted Sars.

Now, he jokingly points out that he broke down in tears in public on only one occasion, not the four times that was cited in some reports.

"If I cried, or if I ever felt wrongly criticised, I felt it for my colleagues rather than myself," he said.

At one point, hospital managers were blamed for skimping on protective gear, such as masks, because they were running low.

"The staff members were forced to allocate and maintain the supply of resources to match the risks they faced," said Ko.

"They had to make sure the front line had enough masks to use not only on one day, but also tomorrow and next week. They were wrongly blamed.

"But it is true that we did not handle the crisis perfectly. We were only learning along the way, at that time."

Ko resigned from the authority in 2004 amid criticism that the hospitals mishandled the Sars outbreak. But he says that was only part of the reason for his departure.

The main reason, he said, was his disagreement with the authority's policy of emphasising financial sustainability over quality of service.

But that policy has changed in recent years, and Ko made his return to government last year.