Government belatedly pleads for Kiwis to use app

Analysis: The Government's tune on its underused contact tracing app has changed as the Prime Minister and Health Minister begin to plead for New Zealanders to download the tool, Marc Daalder reports

Nearly two months after the NZ COVID Tracer app hit the market, the Government has finally decided to start pushing more people to download it.

In two press conferences on Wednesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister Chris Hipkins pleaded with New Zealanders to start downloading the app, which has been woefully underused.

Statistics provided by the Ministry of Health that day showed a continued trend of flatlining use and uptake by individuals and businesses. Just one in eight New Zealanders has registered on the app and of these just one in 60 scans a single QR code on any given day.

Even after accounting for those under 13 and people without access to a smartphone or an internet connection, just one in six of those eligible to download and register the app has done so.

That means that in recent days as many as seven of every eight QR code posters has gone unscanned. On average, each app user has scanned just 2.5 QR codes since the app debuted in late May.

Ardern said that the usage of the app wasn't good enough.

"Someone using the COVID Tracer app exponentially improves our chances of being able to [contact trace] effectively. We can set up a framework but unless people are taking responsible for themselves and recording themselves where they are or have been, that makes that job harder," she said.

"We have to be vigilant. I understand that after 70 days of not having Covid in our community, that for some people it may have moved to the back of their minds. We can't do that. We're just not in a position globally to start thinking like that."

In his prepared remarks, Hipkins similarly raised concerns about the app's uptake.

"We do need to be prepared if new cases of Covid-19 were to emerge in our community," he said.

"If that was to happen tomorrow, based on the number of poster scans we're seeing, not enough New Zealanders would be able to remember their movements for us to efficiently trace who has been exposed to the virus and isolate them to stamp out its spread."

If QR posters don't become more widespread in businesses in the near future, the Government could also mandate the printing and displaying of the posters, Ardern said.

BusinessNZ's Kirk Hope indicated that such a possibility wouldn't faze him.

"Every business should support the effort for better contract tracing," he said.

Hipkins echoed the possibility of a mandate later that afternoon.

"I wouldn't rule that out. Obviously we're going to be considering a range of different options. We will be considering all of the options that we need to get the posters and the app much more widely used," he said.

It remains unclear why, exactly, the Government hasn't just gone ahead and implemented that requirement already. When the country moved to Level 1, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield aired a rare public disagreement with Cabinet when he said he had pushed the Government to require businesses to print and display official QR codes, even if the businesses weren't mandated to ensure customers scanned them.

Ardern said the requirement was unworkable because the process for creating and printing a QR code was difficult for some businesses to use. Among other things, she said, it required a RealMe account - something fewer than 20 percent of New Zealanders have.

However, that hasn't actually been the case for more than a month. On June 3, prior to the move to Level 1, the Ministry of Health debuted a platform by which any business with fewer than 20 locations could create a QR code with just a driver's license and a publicly-accessible New Zealand Business Number.

On Wednesday afternoon, I created a QR code for Newsroom's Press Gallery office using the Ministry of Health platform. It took me seven minutes from the moment I sat down at my computer to the moment I taped the poster to our office door.

Newsroom's Wellington QR code. Photo: Marc Daalder

Alongside the absence of a Government mandate, the app's rollout was also hampered by the delay in releasing it. 

Newsroom reported in June that the NZ COVID Tracer app was released a month after it was originally meant to. This delay meant that private sector options like Rippl proliferated as the country moved to Level 2 and businesses reopened with a contact tracing requirement, leading to confusion among the general public as to what app should be downloaded and what QR codes could be scanned.

Hipkins admitted as much on Wednesday.

"I think that wasn't helpful. Obviously people were working as fast as they could in those circumstances," he said.

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