'Dedicated' Yeoh quits over Sars

Hospital Authority chief Leong Che-hung also offers to go, but board says he should stay on

Health minister Yeoh Eng-kiong resigned last night - three days after a critical Legco report put the blame for the mishandling of last year's Sars outbreak that killed 299 people squarely on his shoulders.

At the end of three days of high drama, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said he had accepted the resignation of a 'dedicated, courageous professional'. Dr Yeoh was the third minister under Mr Tung's new ministerial system to resign under public pressure.

Dr Yeoh will stay on as secretary for health, welfare and food for three months in a caretaker role while a replacement is found.

Hospital Authority chairman Leong Che-hung also offered to resign but this was unanimously rejected by the authority's board, which said all its members would follow if Dr Leong quit. The board also described Dr Yeoh's resignation as 'absolutely unnecessary'.

Trying to fight back his tears, Dr Yeoh said: 'I'd like to say that in the past 33 years I've had the opportunity to serve the community and it has been my honour.

'I just want to say a few words, to thank Mr Tung for his leadership and support, and it has been a privilege having this opportunity to work for the people of Hong Kong.'

Mr Tung accorded Dr Yeoh a more dignified departure than he did Antony Leung Kam-chung, who resigned abruptly a year ago as financial secretary over the car-tax scandal, or Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who took 'early retirement' as secretary for security on the same day over the national security bill.

The health chief was committed, dedicated and professional, the chief executive said.

Dr Yeoh was criticised in the 434-page report of the Legco select committee released on Monday for unsatisfactory communication, failure to supervise former health director Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, and failure to adequately monitor the Hospital Authority, which had no contingency plan for large-scale outbreaks.

Dr Chan, now a top World Health Organisation official, the authority's chairman Dr Leong, its chief executive, William Ho Shiu-wei, and director Ko Wing-man were similarly chastised. Mr Tung was singled out for praise.

Mr Tung told a hastily-called press conference last night: 'I am here to announce a decision: Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Yeoh Eng-kiong this morning, in order to reflect the spirit of the accountability system, tendered his resignation to me.

'After repeated consideration, I accepted his resignation.'

Mr Tung said Dr Yeoh had told him that to soothe the emotions of victims, 'he was willing to shoulder the responsibility'. He said he knew Dr Yeoh was 'very committed to Hong Kong and that he gave his utmost to fulfil his duty'.

'I think Dr Yeoh's performance [in the fight against Sars] lived up to his duty, it was also the assessment [of] international medical experts. Dr Yeoh is very dedicated to his country, very courageous, and ... a professional person to be relied on.'

Dr Yeoh sent his letter of resignation to Mr Tung yesterday morning - amid tearful outrage from recovered Sars patients earlier that day that apologising for the 'deaths and sufferings' was not enough. Dr Yeoh, they said, should do the right thing by resigning.

In his letter, Dr Yeoh said: 'The emotions of the Sars outbreak have created intense debate in the community, which I fully understand.'

He said the issue of how the government should be politically accountable had become the main focus. 'It is, therefore, my decision that, in order to demonstrate my political accountability and to bring a closure to this painful episode, I should resign,' Dr Yeoh said.

Yesterday's announcement came hours after the Democrats said they would move a Legco motion asking Mr Tung to sack Dr Yeoh and condemn Dr Chan, the former health director. The DAB and the Liberal Party also said Dr Yeoh should resign.

Law Chi-kwong, chairman of the Legislative Council's select committee on Sars, said: 'As a principal official under the accountability system, and there were so many people who died, his political responsibility is very clear.'

Colleagues came to Dr Yeoh's defence, saying they 'deeply regretted' his departure.

But patients were unforgiving. They said Dr Yeoh should have done the right thing, and much earlier.