With more than 1,300 medics leaving, there are grave concerns about the city's ability to cope with a fresh outbreak More than 1,300 public health-care workers, most of them nurses, have been approved to take early retirement, raising concerns over whether Hong Kong will have the capacity to fight another Sars outbreak. The Hospital Authority launched a voluntary early retirement scheme at the end of last year for non-civil-service staff, while the government offered a second scheme for civil servants working for the authority and the Department of Health. Figures released by the government yesterday showed that in total 1,084 nurses, 98 doctors and 129 allied health staff - including pharmacists, dispensers, laboratory technicians and clinical psychologists - had had their retirement applications approved. Among the departing doctors, there are 14 consultants - who earn on average $2 million a year - 39 senior medical officers and a further 45 medical officers. The most serious exodus of staff was seen among Department of Health nurses. About a quarter of the department's senior nursing officers, nursing officers and enrolled nurses had joined the scheme. For example, 73 (24.3 per cent) of the department's 301 nursing officers had decided to leave. The loss of manpower comes after the expert panel appointed by the chief executive to investigate the Sars outbreak criticised the health-care system for its lack of a 'surge capacity' to deal with crises. In a written reply to a question from the Legislative Council, Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Yeoh Eng-kiong said the Department of Health and the Hospital Authority would closely monitor the manpower situation. 'The release of staff under the [retirement] scheme would be staggered to ensure that the provision of health-care services will not be unduly affected,' he said. 'We may also consider recruiting non-civil-service contract staff to strengthen manpower support in specific areas, when necessary.' Wong Tak-cheung, president of the Public Doctors' Association, said last night that he was worried public hospitals might face manpower shortages if Sars returns. 'We are facing a critical moment now when Sars may return at any time. It is not easy to find experienced doctors. The government and the HA should not launch similar schemes in near future,' said Dr Wong, a consultant at Tseung Kwan O hospital. Michael Mak Kwok-fung, the legislator representing the health care sector who raised the Legco question yesterday, said high levels of stress, especially during the Sars outbreak, had prompted some health-care workers to leave.