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Speech by SHWF at Finance Committee special meeting

    Following is the speech (translated version) by the Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, Dr York Chow, on food safety and environmental hygiene and health matters at the special meeting of the Finance Committee in the Legislative Council today (March 15):

Chairman and Honourable Members,

     The work of the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau is closely linked with people's livelihoods. We provide health and medical services to safeguard public health and enable a safety net to take care of the underprivileged. We provide family, youth, elderly and rehabilitation services to address the needs of the needy. We regulate medicine to ensure public health. We conduct food surveillance for safe food consumption. We also work together with the Women's Commission to promote the well-being of women.

     In this year's Budget, the total recurrent expenditure of our bureau is $69 billion. Health expenditure accounts for $29.9 billion. Welfare expenditure amounts to $34.6 billion. The remaining $4.5 billion is allocated to the food and environmental hygiene portfolio. This represents an increase over $1 billion in our major recurrent allocation, comprising the $650 million one-off funding granted to the Hospital Authority last year which is now converted to recurrent funding. Of this new money, around $950 million is allocated to the health area, around $100 million goes to welfare, and $32 million is made available for food and environmental hygiene work. These new resources would enable us to enhance the quality of our services for the community. There are four key areas in our many tasks for this year.  

(1) of paramount importance is to prevent and control the outbreak of avian influenza. This is to ensure that Hong Kong will continue to be an international city safe in public health. Our focus is to prevent human infection and infection of local poultry. This would be balanced against our community's gastronomic penchant for fresh poultry meat;

(2) to strive to set up the Centre for Food Safety by the middle of this year to enhance protection for public health through strengthening the existing food safety regulatory functions;

(3) to continue discussion with this Council on the "2005 Smoking (Public Health) (Amendment) Bill", with a view to having the bill passed within the current legislative session. The legislation would by phases make illegal smoking in indoor public places such as restaurants and indoor work places with effect from January 1, 2007, significantly reducing hazards of second-hand smoking;

(4) to consult the public on health care financing by the middle of this year. The consultation seeks to build consensus on which a strong foundation for the implementation of a new health care financing scheme can be laid. This is most essential to ensure quality health care in the midst of ever-rising health care expenditure.

     As Members present are Members of the Panel on Health Services and the Panel on Food Safety and Environmental Hygiene, I will first give an account of the work programmes under these two policy areas. Later, I will turn to welfare when the Members of the Panel on Welfare Services join the meeting.

     On food safety and environmental hygiene side, our priorities in 2006-07 include addressing the avian influenza problem.

     Over the past year, the whole world came under the threat of avian influenza. In view of this, we have launched a range of measures to reduce the risk of local avian influenza outbreaks, including banning backyard poultry keeping so as to reduce the risk of poultry infected by avian influenza.

     We also noted that there was a confirmed human case of H5N1 infection in Guangzhou, Mainland. To reduce contact between humans and live poultry as well as the duration of live poultry staying in the markets, we decided on March 5 to suspend import of live poultry, day-old chicks and pet birds from Guangdong Province for three weeks for the authorities to conduct a full investigation. Subject to confirmation that there is no other human infection case and no avian influenza outbreak in the farms of Guangdong Province, we will resume import of live poultry from Guangdong to Hong Kong.

     In the future, we will continue to implement effective measures to reduce the risk of local avian influenza outbreaks. We will continue to limit the number of birds on licensed local chicken farms to 2 million. We are fully aware that this will have an impact on the trade. As such, we have, since July 2004, made available nearly $600 million in phases to help voluntary exit of the trade for switches to other business. This covers farmers, wholesalers, retailers and transporters.

     For the longer term, we are seeking a site in the New Territories that is relatively far from residential areas but in proximity to poultry farms for the development of a poultry slaughtering plant. This would help achieve our policy objective of separating live poultry from humans. It is expected that it would take three years for completion.

     We plan to establish a Centre for Food Safety. The centre will be established under the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. The arrangement is intended to address the growing public expectation for better food quality and safety standards. The Establishment Sub-committee of the Legislative Council has approved the relevant proposal on February 8 this year. The proposal will be submitted to the Finance Committee of the Legislative Council for consideration on April 7. I hope that Members will support our proposal. If everything goes well, we hope to start the work in establishing the Centre for Food Safety in mid-2006.

     Furthermore, we will introduce legislation for implementing a nutrition labelling scheme within 2006-07 after consulting the industry. A study on regulating the safety of seafood and aquatic products is also well under way. We will consult the Legislative Council, the industries concerned and the public in due course.

     In 2006-07, expenditure on health accounts for 15% of the total recurrent government expenditure, and over 40% of the total recurrent provision of the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau. In respect of health and hospital services, 27 Legislative Council Members have raised a total of 190 questions, this reflects Members' concerns over health issues.

     The new Chief Executive of the Hospital Authority has taken up his position in March, meanwhile new resources are provided to the Hospital Authority this year. Apart from converting an amount of $650 million one-off funding (which is due to lapse at the end of March) into recurrent funding, additional recurrent provision of $300 million is provided for in the coming year's budget with additional recurrent $300 million in each of the following two years. Such an arrangement will help to alleviate the stringent financial condition of the Hospital Authority and would provide more certainty to the Authority in respect of its resources, enabling it to make longer-term financial arrangements.

     Looking ahead, the Hospital Authority faces substantial challenges: meeting public expectations, responding to increases in service demands, enhancing efficiency, improving staff morale, among others. All these cannot be achieved overnight. With new resources and new leadership, we hope developments will take a new aspect in the Hospital Authority.

     In 2006-07, we estimate that the total expenditure devoted by the Government and the public on public and private medical services will amount to more than $60 billion. We all knew that together, the advancement of medical technology and an ageing population, meant we would no longer be able to pay off future public and private medical expenditures if merely relying on taxation revenue and personal income. The Health and Medical Development Advisory Committee chaired by me is exploring other healthcare financing options. It is expected that initial recommendations will be available for public consultation in the middle of this year.

Ends/Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Issued at HKT 16:00