Fri, Jul 09, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Hong Kong public health official quits over SARS

RARE CASUALTY Yeoh Eng-kiong is the most senior official to be held accountable for the spread of SARS in Hong Kong, but he had to be pushed

AP , Hong Kong

Bowing to pressure over a slow, sloppy response to SARS, Hong Kong's health secretary has resigned to take blame for the crisis that killed hundreds and caused months of uncertainty and fear in the territory.

Yeoh Eng-kiong (楊永強) became a rare political casualty in Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's (董建華) administration, which critics charge avoids being held accountable for major problems.

Yeoh's departure might give Tung a boost at a time when Hong Kongers are furious at a recent decision by Beijing ruling out full democracy in the next few years. The anger spilled into the streets last week in a pro-democracy march by several hundred thousand people.

Yeoh ran into trouble this week after a legislative report on Monday blamed him for many failures in the fight against SARS. Dozens of relatives of SARS victims gathered outside the legislature on Wednesday calling for Yeoh's removal.

At a press conference after his resignation was announced, Yeoh said he had "dedicated all my energies for one single purpose -- to stop this deadly disease that had created so much suffering," but it became politically impossible to stay after a legislative investigation found his performance inadequate.

Tung said he accepted the resignation, but he also praised Yeoh for fixing shortcomings in the health system that came to light during the SARS crisis.

SARS infected 1,755 people in Hong Kong and killed 299 of them as health workers and hospital administrators scrambled to understand and contain the disease that didn't even have a name when it came here in February last year from China.

Tung said Yeoh had previously talked to him about quitting in "the spirit of accountability and to try to relieve the resentment felt by the victims of SARS," but Tung initially told Yeoh there was more work to be done and kept him on.

Monday's 434-page report from the Legislative Council Select Committee did not call for Yeoh's removal, but Hong Kong's top three political parties lined up on Wednesday and said he should go.

Yeoh's resignation letter to Tung, dated Tuesday, said he was leaving to "to demonstrate my political accountability and to bring a closure to this painful episode."

Tung said Yeoh would stay on the job until a successor was chosen.

The report said Yeoh paid too little attention when SARS was spreading in China early last year and later issued statements that misled a nervous public about the disease's severity in Hong Kong. The territory's hospitals also had no systemwide plans for confronting such an epidemic.

After the scathing report, Yeoh apologized to everyone in Hong Kong -- including SARS victims, relatives of the dead and healthcare workers.

His resignation was not enough for some victims of the outbreak.

"My wife is dead and she'll never come back," said one man, whose wife caught SARS in the hard-hit Amoy Gardens complex.

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