Tue, Jul 06, 2004 - Page 5 News List

HK report on SARS lauds politicians, slams top doctors

AP , HONG KONG

An inquiry into Hong Kong's response to the SARS crisis has criticized the actions of four top health officials, a lawmaker disclosed yesterday.

But a newspaper said that Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華), would emerge unscathed and win praise for urging Hong Kong's citizens to wear masks and other measures including the quarantine of people who had come into contact with SARS patients.

Two earlier investigations found that Hong Kong's reaction to the epidemic was slow and sloppy, but they failed to hold any officials accountable.

Lawmakers then launched a third inquiry and were to release the findings late yesterday afternoon.

The new report says that four top health officials are among those who must accept the "thrust of the criticisms" over Hong Kong's handling of the SARS outbreak that sickened 1,755 people and killed 299 last year, according to a letter from lawmaker Lo Wing-lok.

Lo, who also is president of the Hong Kong Medical Association, gave a few details of the report in a letter dated Monday and sent to Hong Kong doctors and dentists. A copy was obtained by reporters.

Lo said the report finds fault with the performances of the Hong Kong health secretary, Dr. Yeoh Eng-kiong; former health director Dr. Margaret Chan; Hospital Authority chairman Dr. Leong Che-hung; and the authority's chief executive, Dr. William Ho.

Lo's letter does not spell out all of the criticisms leveled against them, however, and the letter does not mention Tung.

But the South China Morning Post reported that the lawmakers were expected to praise Tung for encouraging citizens to wear surgical masks, for directing ministers to shut down a hard-hit apartment complex and the schools, and for quarantining people who had been in close contact with SARS patients.

Tung had previously come under attack from members of the public and opposition lawmakers. Some found it puzzling that he would reportedly escape criticism in the new report.

"I don't know why they would praise Tung. This is something I wouldn't do," said Dr. Kwok Ka-ki, a spokesman for a local health-care pressure group. "He hasn't done a perfect job. So far, he hasn't done anything effective to prevent further outbreaks and restore confidence in the public."

Hong Kong was thrown into crisis by SARS as frightened residents stayed home and thousands of visitors heeded a World Health Organization warning to stay away. Businesses lots millions of dollars and unemployment shot to a record high of 8.7 percent.

There was no immediate response yesterday from Hong Kong's Health Department, Hospital Authority or the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau.

Lo's letter charged that Hong Kong officials have tried to avoid blame for their botched response to SARS, and it urged Yeoh to "stop discrediting fair criticism as based on hindsight."

Lo said that report found that it was "less than prudent" to put new patients into hospital wards where an outbreak of an unknown infectious disease like SARS was spreading -- and that had nothing to do with hindsight.

"Even the top independent medical experts of the world cannot dispute this plain truth," Lo wrote.

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