A central slaughtering house for poultry was among the priorities listed by Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in a report he handed down in August 2003 as head of a post-Sars and bird flu team to clean up Hong Kong. More than three years later, despite bird flu being an ever-present threat, the consultation process is dragging on and the government says that the soonest such a facility could be operational is 2009. For a matter of such urgency, this is an unacceptable timeframe, but not unexpected from an administration with a record of being eager to forge as much consensus as possible. As admirable as this goal may be, the result is clearly evidenced by the fact that despite our vulnerability to a virus the World Health Organisation has warned could prompt the next global pandemic, a vital protective barrier is years from being in place. Health experts have been talking about banning poultry from wet markets and processing the birds in a centrally located facility since the H5N1 bird flu virus first jumped the species barrier in Hong Kong in 1997. The government did not seriously take up the matter until Mr Tsang presented it as one of the suggestions of his 'team clean'. The idea is common sense: the fewer opportunities people have of coming into contact with infected birds, the lower the risk of catching bird flu. An abattoir at which all poultry would be slaughtered and processed is the obvious solution. That the government swiftly embraced the project is praiseworthy; however, its subsequent dragging of feet amid opposition from the poultry industry, district councils and residents living near suggested locations for the facility has once again shown the flaws inherent in our political system. A democratically elected government has a mandate for its policies so could simply proceed with the project. If voters did not like the idea, they would have the option of not voting for those lawmakers at the next election. Alternatively, a referendum could be held to gauge support. Referendums are a sensitive topic to our government, so it resorts to a consultation process involving interest groups, and every effort is made to accommodate objectors. Turning proposals into projects becomes a years-long process - as shown by the central slaughtering house, the battle to implement a smoking ban in public places and the lack of a law against racial discrimination, among others. The government has done much to keep Hong Kong safe from bird flu; while the mainland and Southeast Asian countries have been regularly afflicted with cases in the past two years, we have remained bird flu free. To ensure our continued protection, however, the poultry abattoir is essential. Mr Tsang's blueprint for change after bird flu and Sars was proof that the government had a strategy. The urgency spoken of then must be restored with haste.