Hong Kong has been aiming to attract 100 doctors trained abroad to serve at public hospitals after admission rules were relaxed, the health chief has said. However, only around 10 have been willing to come.

Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau meeting the press on December 13, 2022
Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau meeting the press on December 13, 2022. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Health minister Lo Chung-mau also said that the government’s early success in containing large-scale Covid outbreaks contributed to the deadliness of the Omicron wave: “We were a victim of our own success,” he said, as many “had the misconception that vaccination was not necessary.”

In the HK01 interview on Thursday, he said the low vaccination rate among the elderly was why the coronavirus claimed nearly 10,000 lives in a short time. According to Bloomberg, Hong Kong – at one stage – had the highest death rate in the developed world.

The health minister also said he would not comment on the actions of the last administration. “I don’t like to act as a historian and look back on what happened in the past,” he said, adding that he thought that “using today’s point of view to criticise what happened yesterday is not very fair.”

When asked about his relationship with Chief Executive John Lee, who had repeatedly scrapped certain Covid-19 measures days after Lo publicly defended them, the health chief compared their partnership to “parents in a family.”

John Lee Lo Chung-mau
Chief Executive John Lee and Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau meet the press on February 28, 2023, when the Hong Kong government announces to axe the Covid-19 mask mandate after more than 2.5 years since the curb was imposed. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“There always a good guy and a bad guy… in the end, we are on the same page and the policy comes out consistent,” Lo said.

Shortage in medics

In another HK01 report published on Friday, Lo admitted that there had been a shortage of manpower in the city’s medical sector. On average, Lo said Hong Kong only had two doctors per 1,000 people, while Singapore had 2.8 and countries in Europe and North America had three.

According to the latest government budget, the city’s public hospitals had 34 fewer doctors and 407 fewer nurses in 2022-23 when compared to the year before.

“The entirety of Hong Kong faces shortages in the work force. That is, to some extent, due to emigration, as well as many reasons such as the social and political environment,” Lo said.

In order to attract non-locally trained doctors to work in Hong Kong, the city’s legislature had amended the Medical Registration Ordinance back in October 2021 to allow graduates from 50 non-local medical schools to practice in the public health system without taking additional licensing exams under limited registration.

medic medical doctor A&E emergency ER caritas covid covid-19 queue
Medics at the Caritas Medical Centre in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong during the fifth-wave Covid-19 outbreak. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

There is also a new registration pathway for these doctors to obtain a full license to practice in Hong Kong after working in the public sector for a period of time and passing relevant assessment.

The health minister told HK01 that the aim was to recruit 100 doctors in the short term, “to demonstrate that the authorities were capable of attracting talent.”

However, Lo said only around 10 practitioners had been willing to come to the city after the amendment – a large gap compared to the initial target.

He said he believed that was due to Hong Kong’s past Covid-19 border control measures.

To combat the shortage in the medical work force, the health chief said that – next month – the Hospital Authority will send a team to attract talent from places where many Hongkongers are studying, with the UK being the first stop.

Lo said the city’s authorities will provide assistance to these Hong Kong students if they were to return, including support for housing.

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.