Contact tracing could be reinstated

The Government could reinstate a requirement that businesses keep a register of visitors as printing official QR codes becomes easier, Marc Daalder reports

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said on Thursday that he may advise Cabinet to reinstate a requirement that businesses contact trace as more shops take up official Government QR codes.

Since the debut of the Government app, NZ COVID Tracer, there has been a widespread perception in the business community that accessing and printing a unique QR code is a painstaking process. The original system for doing so, devised by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), called for a New Zealand Business Number (which is publicly accessible via the companies register) and a RealMe account, which fewer than 20 percent of New Zealanders have.

However, on June 3, a new Ministry of Health method debuted which used only the publicly-accessible NZBN and a driver's licence. The number of participating locations jumped by a third that day, but growth slowed thereafter.

Streamlined system easier to use

It remains unclear how much of the wider retail and hospitality sector knows about the streamlined Ministry of Health website. Even the Prime Minister, speaking on June 8, wrongly said, "At the moment, accessing the QR code does require you to have your business number and RealMe".

This was why Ardern scrapped an earlier proposal from Bloomfield to make printing QR codes mandatory for businesses under Level 1.

"At the moment, what we've opted for is to continue to work with [the retail and hospitality sector] to make it easier for their members to access the QR code," she said on June 8.

Ardern added that this could be reconsidered at a later date, once the system became more streamlined. But it is already extremely easy to use, according to tech and society expert Carlos Cordero.

Cordero used the MBIE system on May 22 to create a QR code for his digital consultancy firm, even though it runs out of his home. That system was already fairly easy to use, he told Newsroom, but the streamlined Ministry of Health portal was a breeze.

Ahead of a meet-up of an incorporated society he is involved in, the New Zealand Python User Group, he used the Ministry of Health system to print out a QR code for the coding organisation, which has an NZBN.

"It was so easy. Within 10 seconds, it was in my inbox," Cordero said.

A public health measure

A requirement to use the new system could reassure public health experts who have called for more widespread contact tracing solutions, even at Level 1.

"Everyone in health protection just knows that you have to plan for system failure. The only backup we've really got is testing and then contact tracing. The current set up is an area of vulnerability," University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker told Newsroom last week.

A spokesperson for the regional branch of the World Health Organization declined to specifically address New Zealand's circumstances but told Newsroom, "While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to easing restrictions, we urge all countries to continue active surveillance to ensure the virus does not rebound."

"Six months into this pandemic, the cornerstone of the response remains for every country to find, isolate, test and care for every case, and to trace and quarantine every contact. That is every country’s best defence against Covid-19."

Bloomfield said on Thursday that the two Covid-19 cases revealed on Tuesday, who were granted a compassionate exemption to leave managed isolation early and came in brief physical contact with a friend who then visited a gym class, underscored the need for robust contact tracing measures.

"We're not out of the woods yet on this. There is a large global pandemic under way," he said.

"We need people to continue to download the app and use it and I'd just encourage them and businesses to put the QR codes up. Every day there are more businesses doing that. Let's see if, in a few weeks' time, it might be that we would add a requirement in. I know that the ministers will be open to advice on that, if it's useful."

Ardern on Thursday reiterated that she would consider requiring that businesses contact trace if needed.

"We've always kept that option open, as you will have heard me say. We've kept it as it is at the moment, but we're also, of course, continuing to look at alternatives that may have greater uptake or more success."

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