If Hong Kong's live chicken stalls are closed because of the bird flu threat, the poultry trade says 3,000 people would lose their jobs and part of the local culture might be lost forever. Scientists say that every day the stalls remain open represents a heightened risk of infection with the deadly H5N1 virus to stallholders and the rest of the community. Those considerations have made closing the stalls and introducing central slaughtering of chickens an unpalatable political decision for the government. But amid the global alert over the danger of a flu pandemic, it has become a question of when, not if. Now, a senior government source has revealed a plan that would not see live chickens banned from wet markets until 2009 - more than 10 years after the idea was first raised. Live poultry sales will be phased out over three years under a compensation plan for stallholders, coinciding with the setting up of a central slaughterhouse in the New Territories. The government source said the three-year deadline struck a good balance between public health and trade concerns. The balance does not seem tilted towards the public interest. The government has already said that if there is a bird flu outbreak in Hong Kong the 500-odd live chicken stalls at wet markets would be closed and central slaughtering introduced. This shows that human contact with animals where there is a chance of infection is regarded as an unacceptable risk. So why wait until it may be too late? The government has not shirked decisive action before when confronted with serious threats to public health. Examples are the slaughter of poultry during the bird flu outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997, the crackdown on public hygiene standards after the Sars outbreak and the halting and testing of chicken imports from the mainland after bird flu outbreaks. This week it took a tough line against backyard chickens following the discovery of the H5N1 virus in wild birds, making it a criminal offence to keep poultry and enforcing the ban with inspections, seizures and the threat of prosecution. Yet it continues to drag its feet on the issue of a central slaughterhouse. Surely the sale of live poultry in markets is the basis of the whole bird flu threat. The proposal for a central slaughterhouse has been around since 1997 when the H5N1 virus first jumped the species barrier, killing six of the 18 people who fell sick. In the event, live chicken sales resumed after the all-clear. We can be thankful that other measures recommended at that time have been implemented. Hong Kong has been spared any outbreak since the deadly bird flu virus reappeared in Asia in December 2003. And the strategy of reducing the live chicken population through a voluntary buy-back scheme is the right one. In the wake of the Sars outbreak in 2003, the central slaughtering idea gathered renewed momentum when the government's Team Clean, under then chief secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, now chief executive, strongly backed it as a measure to reduce the risk of a bird flu outbreak. That is a view endorsed time and again by scientists and public health authorities. The government has said in the past it could take two years to prepare equipment and train staff. But there has been plenty of time in which to make the necessary preparations. Postponing action until the danger strikes makes little sense, whatever the practical difficulties. Legislative Council members will next month get an opportunity to press for more urgency when the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau presents the three-year plan to phase out live chicken sales. Meanwhile, the public has to be content with information revealed by a faceless government source. This raises a question whether the government should be 'leaking' important decisions anonymously to the media. Why does the Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food York Chow Yat-ngok not come out publicly to talk about it? The public and the poultry trade would then be able to ask legitimate questions.