Hong Kong’s top health official overseeing the fight against Covid-19 has been replaced in an “unusual” lateral move and stripped of his anti-pandemic responsibilities amid turmoil at the contact-tracing agency.
The Department of Health confirmed the changing of the guard at the Centre for Health Protection late on Thursday night, announcing that controller Dr Wong Ka-hing would step aside and become the controller of public health services, a newly created position that will last for just half a year starting on Friday.
Dr Ronald Lam Man-kin, deputy director of health, will take over Wong’s old job as head of the agency.
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A spokeswoman for the health department said the centre had faced an “increasing workload” combating the Covid-19 pandemic, and was set to prepare and roll out the city’s coronavirus vaccination campaign in coming months. The latest personnel changes would lessen the workload of the controller at a “critical moment in the anti-pandemic effort”, she added.
Two medical sources with knowledge of the matter told the Post that following the changes, Lam would lead the fight against Covid-19 while Wong would be responsible for other diseases, such as the flu, and community health services. While they believed the change was not a demotion for Wong, one of the sources nonetheless observed that to “change a general in the midst of a war” was “highly unusual”.
Created in 2004 after the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak, the Centre for Health Protection is an agency under the Department of Health and has a wide remit for disease prevention and control.
Since the arrival of the first Covid-19 cases in the city a year ago, the centre has been at the heart of anti-pandemic operations on multiple fronts, including in contact tracing, testing and quarantine, and, more recently, mandatory screening and district-based lockdowns. But it has also come under fire, including from pro-Beijing politicians, for its perceived slow response in identifying and isolating close contacts of Covid-19 patients, as well as virus testing.
In contrast with the high-profile approach during Sars by Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun – the then health department chief who fronted regular press conferences and later went on to serve as director general of the World Health Organization – Wong has rarely attended Covid-19 media briefings, and was usually seen in public only when accompanying infectious disease expert Professor Yuen Kwok-yung on tours of coronavirus-hit buildings.
The task of public communications has largely fallen to Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch of the CHP, leading to questions of Wong’s leadership and competence.
One medical source, however, said Wong’s new job was not a demotion or punishment, as he was still at the highest rank for a consultant position. Rather, the changes signalled a move up for Lam, who rose by half a rank from his previous position, and might have greater ambitions of becoming the next director of the Department of Health.
The source added that the latest development had been rumoured in civil service circles for some time, as Lam had assumed some of Wong’s responsibilities when the latter took a leave of absence in October last year.
“Wong may be happier after the move, because frankly there has been a lot of … pressure to carry out ambush-style lockdowns in many areas,” the source said.
As to accusations that Wong has led from behind, the insider said the former controller had been coordinating epidemiological research and contact tracing behind the scenes.
“A consultant doctor also doesn’t do everything by himself when he is doing the rounds in the ward, even though he knows how to do it. A good boss delegates his tasks,” the source said.
Another Department of Health veteran, however, noted that a more “muscular” leadership strategy might better energise the agency’s demoralised workforce.
The insider pointed to recent examples of coronavirus outbreaks in construction sites – such as the Tseung Kwan O-Lam Tin tunnel and the Central Kowloon Route – which were widely believed to have contributed to the latest rebound in the fourth wave, saying a more powerful leader could order the sites to close down longer and quarantine more builders, even in the face of possible opposition from construction firms and other interest groups.
“It’s no secret that the Centre for Health Protection has been a bit of a pushover in this pandemic, and unable to command and mobilise other departments to move in lockstep. But I can’t say whether Wong has been made a scapegoat for that,” the source added.
A specialist in HIV/Aids, Wong took over the reins of the CHP in November 2016 as its fourth controller. His successor, Lam, is a specialist in public health and was the head of the government’s tobacco control office.
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