October 6, 2021

Imagine a world in which we live underground, each of us inhabiting our own small pod. Every need is provided for by an all-knowing machine. Travel is possible but discouraged, and for the most part we prefer to communicate remotely.

That was the premise of EM Forster’s science fiction novella The Machine Stops. Like all good sci-fi, the story can be read in multiple ways. But for me the key thing is what happens when the machine begins, slowly but ineluctably, to break down. Trivially to begin with — strange noises, the wrong music, smelly bath water — but then things begin to get more serious when the food starts to go off, and eventually the machine collapses and everyone is killed.

Yet until it’s too late, these flaws do not make people challenge the machine or wonder whether they might in fact be better off living on the surface of the earth. Although each flaw is resented at first, people just get used to them and begin to think them normal. “Time passed,” Forster wrote, “and they resented the defects no longer. The defects had not been remedied, but the human tissues in that latter day had become so subservient, that they readily adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine”.

I confess to not having given the story much thought since I studied it back in school, decades ago. But it has clearly been lurking somewhere deep in my memory — because all it took for it to leap out from the subconscious was the right cue.

It turned out that the right cue was Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee. Professor Chan is Hong Kong’s Secretary for Food and Health, with responsibility for many of its Covid restrictions, and so for those of us living here she is a figure of some import. She is firmly of the Safety First, Can’t Be Too Careful school of thought, to the point where she makes Chris Whitty look like an especially rabid anti-vaxxer.

This approach served Hong Kong well in the early days of the pandemic. Moving swiftly, and encouraged by most of the population who often urged the Government to take more drastic action, Hong Kong has managed to avoid both mass outbreaks and any large-scale full lockdowns of the sort seen in the UK. The Covid death toll here stands at just 213 — fewer than died from SARS — and there now hasn’t been a locally transmitted case for over a month.

Faced with the choice between remaining Asia’s World City or prioritising Our Friends in the North, it has now chosen the latter, aiming for a zero Covid policy and hoping that the border with the mainland will open again soon. This has resulted in some of the tightest travel restrictions in the world – 21 days in a quarantine hotel for someone from the UK, for example, even if fully vaccinated. In turn, this has had a disastrous impact on the vaccination programme. Vaccines are freely and easily available, but uptake has been slow, with the most vulnerable being the least likely to have been jabbed. The figure for the over-80s vaccinated is still below 20%: when you’ve got zero Covid, and if you don’t want to travel anywhere, why bother?

Yet however frustrating some of this might be — and however much we might wonder if this is sustainable — these are all legitimate policy choices. Given the mainland’s own zero Covid policy, and the importance of cross-border traffic, it’s difficult to see what Hong Kong could really do. Plus, however much pain this causes many foreigners and others with relatives overseas, there’s little doubt that it is popular within the wider population.

All this I can cope with, just about. But last month, Professor Chan claimed that in Hong Kong there is now “local normalcy” — and it was this that provoked my Forster flashback.

She was trying to argue that however grim the quarantine rules might be, life once here is fine and dandy. This might strike you as a bit “apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”, but you can at least see her point: if they allow normal life to continue, maybe it’s possible to justify very strict travel restrictions.

Yet life is clearly not normal in Hong Kong, even if we just confine ourselves to the restrictions brought about by Covid. Rather, Chan’s claim is one of the best examples of the ratchet effect in public policy I’ve seen for ages.

Let’s just take just the things that affect me on an almost daily basis. Mask wearing is compulsory in public, for everyone, even when outdoors. There are limits on group gatherings, with still no more than four people allowed to gather outdoors (although unlike in the UK, say, there has never been any limits on private gatherings). Table sittings in restaurants are also restricted, usually to four, although some places are allowed to go really wild up to six, depending on the extent of staff vaccinations. Tracking entry and exit via an app into any public building or restaurant is compulsory.

Most schools are still not back to full-day provision, even though pupils are now in their sixth term of disrupted schooling, and even when at school there are innumerable restrictions on what they can do. Meanwhile, at home, there is routine compulsory testing of areas or groups. These can involve locking down whole blocks with no warning — so-called “ambushes” — even with the possibility of breaking into your home if you don’t answer the door.

And hovering above it all is the ever-present threat of being carted off to a government quarantine centre. Should one of your close contacts tests positive, there’s none of the would-you-mind-awfully-staying-at-home-please attitude here. Instead, you get picked up, with almost no notice, and chucked in a room in a quarantine centre for up to three weeks, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If you actually have Covid, you are taken into hospital. There is little care for family separation, as with the children taken away from their parents — or the breastfeeding mother separated from her four month old baby, despite the child being unable to take formula milk. (That one was solved only because women donated spare pumped breast milk).

It is common to see praise in the West for how countries like Hong Kong have managed track, trace, and isolate programmes, without being aware of what the reality of the isolate bit often means. We have a bag ready, by the front door, packed with emergency provisions, just in case the guys and gals in Hazmat suits come knocking.

These examples are illustrative, not exhaustive. Everyone in Hong Kong could list others. And remember: these are the restrictions currently in place with the Covid stats down to zero.

Just as when Forster’s machine starts to break down, some of this might be considered fairly trivial, but some of it is not. Some of it may even be justified in the short or medium term. But none of it is normal, and we should not let politicians — in Hong Kong or elsewhere — ever tell us otherwise.

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.