'Life itself is full of dangers. If you want to be completely risk-free, don't stay alive.' At the height of the Sars crisis, Secretary of Health and Welfare Yeoh Eng-kiong fought back with these words as he was being questioned by journalists demanding to know whether the government was doing enough to protect the public. A physician by training, Dr Yeoh was anxious to convince a jittery Hong Kong of the importance of understanding the fears surrounding the virus with a degree of proportionality, rationality and calm. 'When similar crises have occurred in other parts of the world, there has always been criticism of this or that kind. People challenge whether their government has acted too slowly, had done enough and whether officials were competent enough,' he said. 'If I had to address all the political issues, I would not be able to do my job of trying to contain the outbreak. From day one, I had set a clear agenda. Based on my ability, knowledge and the resources available, I tried to contain the epidemic as soon as possible. 'I would not be able to do anything if I was too concerned about how people look at me and how I should protect myself. This is the way I look at it. I'll leave it to other people to make their comments.' As the minister in charge of health in Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's administration, Dr Yeoh has been feeling the political heat since early March in a community devastated by the Sars outbreak. Asked how he manages to keep cool-headed, he replied: 'Swimming. But there are a few days that I couldn't make it.' As of yesterday, 273 people, including four medical and health-care staff, have died of Sars in Hong Kong. There have been 1,732 cases and 92 people are still being treated in hospital, and 32 in intensive care. Despite the lifting last week of an advisory by the World Health Organisation against travelling to Hong Kong, the city is still on the list of Sars infected areas. Pressure has been mounting for the government to set up an independent inquiry into the outbreak following Mr Tung's announcement that a panel of experts would be established, led by Dr Yeoh, to study ways of preventing a recurrence of the outbreak. Dr Yeoh found himself in hot water in the early days of the outbreak for insisting there was no outbreak in the community. And the government reaction to the outbreak was criticised by Chinese University academic Leung Ping-chung as 'shamelessly slow'. A public opinion poll published on Tuesday showed Dr Yeoh's popularity had fallen from fourth to 10th in the Tung administration. Against this background, political pundits have been speculating on Dr Yeoh's fate, particularly after health ministers on the mainland and Taiwan were sacked or resigned for their roles in handling the crises. Looking relaxed in the Central Government Office, Dr Yeoh said: 'Resignation or not doesn't matter much to me. I would have been the first to offer to resign if doing so could have solved the problem.' He said it was up to the Legislative Council to decide whether it should conduct its own inquiry. Mr Tung, he added, had set a clear objective in naming a panel of non-government experts to investigate the crisis and prepare defences against a recurrence of Sars or the emergence of new infectious diseases. 'I'm in charge of public health. We want to find out what happened and what should be done to avoid it,' he said. 'Who should do the job if I'm not doing it? 'It's a question of perception in Hong Kong. Everything has to be independently conducted. Who's going to be held responsible if it's independent? Whether Mr Tung feels satisfied with my performance is a separate matter.' Dr Yeoh said he hoped the international experts would be able to provide insights into any blind spots in Hong Kong's public health system. 'Our decision is always shaped by our own experience and knowledge. As far as Sars is concerned, our experience is zero,' he said. 'The fact is that international experts are interested in the way we handled the crisis. They are surprised by how we managed to handle such a massive epidemic within a short period of time.' Dr Yeoh conceded that the government had almost been passive in its response to the health crisis at the early stage of the outbreak. 'We waited for the hospitals to report their cases. But we were soon able to set up a new mechanism with the Hospital Authority and the Department of Health.' From the end of March, under the 'E-Sars' mechanism, details of cases were immediately posted on the health department website. 'We gained a lot of experience - costly experience,' he said. Health officials originally insisted that the virus was mainly transmitted through droplets. It was only when cases at Amoy Gardens jumped in late March that officials began to study the possibility of other transmission channels and environmental factors. Investigation reports found the mass outbreak was due to infections via the sewage system. Dr Yeoh said: 'Of course, we understand more about the virus now. At that time, there was so little known about it. We can only work on assumptions and the basis of experience.' The health minister was at the centre of a controversy about whether Prince of Wales Hospital should have been closed down at an early stage of the crisis. It was reported that doctors at the Sha Tin medical centre had urged the government to close the hospital when the number of infections shot up after March 10. 'Let's wait for the investigation by the experts' panel,' he said.