With Sars under control and the World Health Organisation's travel advisory lifted, Hong Kong is well on the path to recovery from the virus outbreak. But we will never be able to get completely back to normal as long as one question remains unanswered: What went wrong? But before anyone from the Frontier Party starts shouting hooray for the Post, we should point out that we are not asking who, but what. Of course it is important to come to an understanding of how government and health-care authorities mishandled the outbreak, and if specific persons are found to have been grossly incompetent or negligent in their duties, then action must be taken against them. It is far more important, however, that systemic weaknesses are identified in Hong Kong's health-care infrastructure so that they can be fixed. We are not advocating a witch hunt; we are in favour of a careful investigation into, and analysis of, the way in which Hong Kong authorities handled the Sars outbreak. The best way to achieve this is to allow an independent commission to be set up for the task. The people of Hong Kong must be reassured that no stone will be left unturned in an effort to find out how this deadly disease managed to get past our defences and bring the city to a near standstill, killing 262 people and infecting 1,724. Asking the health secretary to look into the matter will not work. money isn't everything While the responsibility to revive Hong Kong's economy lies with all of us in the coming weeks and months, the government has a key role to play. It is to restore confidence. To this end, it is putting together a billion-dollar plan to relaunch the city on the world stage. Without international travellers, be they for business or leisure, full recovery is impossible. An equally important part of the campaign will be to get locals believing in their city again so that they resume normal economic activities. All this money will likely be spent for nothing, however, if locals and foreigners are left with doubts that Hong Kong is able to guard against the next possible deadly virus to sweep across from Guangdong. At present, they have every reason to believe that Hong Kong's health-care system is in need of improvement. Though the authorities are to be commended for their efforts to bring the outbreak under control, it is clear that an independent inquiry should look for answers to crucial questions. Chief among these would be whether there were too many delays in reacting to new developments by the Health Department, Hospital Authority and hospital management teams. It seems obvious, for example, that infection control regimes were either not implemented quickly enough in some hospitals, or that putting too many Sars patients together caused problems. Not enough attention seems to have been paid to protection in general wards, as shown by the fact that some of the infections of health workers were caused by general patients who later turned out to have Sars. The Hospital Authority and hospital managements appear to have adopted a conservative approach to handing out protective clothing and equipment. Officials must have been greatly embarrassed when Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was forced to deal with the problem by approaching the mainland authorities for protective clothing and equipment when it was similarly struggling to deal with the crisis. The community also rallied, through campaigns like this newspaper's Project Shield, to purchase and provide what should have been made available by authorities. The government responded decisively only after the media focused attention on the high rate of infections among health workers. But the inquiry should go even further back, to the early days of the outbreak in Guangdong. As was noted on our opinion page last Friday, by William Meacham of the University of Hong Kong, the government must have known what was coming Hong Kong's way long before suspected cases began to appear here. There is a huge volume of daily traffic between the city and the hinterland of Guangdong. The first cases of Sars reportedly happened near Guangzhou in mid-November last year. The next month, the Hong Kong government admitted to being in close contact with Guangdong authorities about concerns over a reappearance of bird flu. That was at the time when the first Sars case apparently was identified in Heyuan, and was reported in mainland media soon afterwards. Rumours were abounding of a new deadly type of pneumonia, yet it seems that the Hong Kong government did not make strenuous efforts to find out from its counterparts in Guangdong exactly what was going on. Or if it did, no one thought it necessary to tell the Hong Kong public. More importantly, once the disease was on Hong Kong's doorstep in early February, it seems the alarm bells were still not ringing loudly enough. Guangdong had already discovered how infectious the disease was, yet there was a delay in prescribing strongly protective gear for frontline workers in Hong Kong as Sars began to tear into hospital wards in the early stages of the outbreak. Looking to the future With hindsight, there was also much the authorities did right. Once the government came clean on the fact that Sars was a serious threat to the community and began taking effective quarantine measures, headway started to be made in containing the virus. As soon as authorities better understood what they were dealing with, resources were brought to bear more effectively in combating it. But there were several stages during the crisis when knowledge was patchy, which required quick reaction and forward thinking - both of which were lacking. The next crisis that comes along will require such abilities, too. Which is precisely why the government cannot be left to conduct an internal inquiry by itself. As the chairman of the Democratic Party, Yeung Sum, said while referring to Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Yeoh Eng-kiong last week: 'It's totally unacceptable to have Dr Yeoh investigating Dr Yeoh. There is a conflict of interest. People will question its impartiality.' So let us suggest an alternative: the inquiry should be conducted by a judge. He or she may be assisted by infectious disease and health management experts, but the impartiality of the commission's leadership should be beyond question. Only after the findings have been handed down should the government get involved. Its role should be to review the conclusions and implement the recommendations as best it can. The business people and tourists who have been too afraid to return will then have been given a signal that the government is sincere in its efforts to rebuild. Hong Kong will similarly be given confidence in its future.