Documents reveal Govt’s plan for Covid-19 app

Newly-released Government documents show Cabinet's plans for a Covid-19 contact tracing app in the early phase of New Zealand's response to the coronavirus, Marc Daalder reports

Cabinet documents released shed further light on how the Government planned its Covid-19 contact tracing app.

In particular, an April 9 Cabinet paper outlines the options available to the Government if it wanted to pursue a digital solution to contact tracing. At the same time, an app was in development that would allow users to update their contact information with the Ministry of Health.

That app, which would eventually become NZ COVID Tracer, was originally scheduled to debut on April 17, according to the Cabinet paper. Later documents show the deadline was pushed back to April 28 and then May 27, when the app finally hit the market.

Newsroom has previously reported that the delay suppressed uptake of the app, which has only been downloaded and registered by about one in six eligible users, after taking children and people without smartphones out of the equation. Of those, just one in 50 scan a QR code on any given day.

The long delay runs in contrast to an explicit acknowledgement within the April 9 Cabinet paper that a deployment of the app while New Zealand was at a higher alert level and while New Zealanders were still concerned about Covid-19 would see higher uptake.

"Generally, uptake is high when users feel that there is some benefit to them from using the [app]. The opportunity to return to a more normal life and restart economic activity may be a strong motivator for uptake," the paper states. However, the app didn't launch until the country was in Level 2 and that motivator was largely no longer in place.

Uptake the issue

The Government also looked to increase uptake of the app by automatically downloading it on New Zealanders' phones.

"We are also exploring the technical and legal feasibility of the app being pushed out to all smart phones. This would reduce barriers to uptake but the user would still need to open the app and register," the paper stated. This did not end up occurring - it is unclear whether technical or legal barriers were the issue, or whether the idea violated the Government's preference for a voluntary, opt-in solution.

Any digital solution would be predicated on four key principles, the paper said: public health efficacy, privacy, the ability to allow for greater freedom of movement and technical feasibility. An analysis of social media postings regarding recent media coverage of contact tracing apps found "New Zealanders are broadly in favour of harnessing IT for contact tracing, but with a number of caveats. They want reassurance that the system will be secure and feel that the Government has a bad track record on data security. Some have expressed concerns about snooping and over-reach."

At the time, the Government was expecting its eventual app would use Bluetooth proximity tracing technology. While this is still a possibility for NZ COVID Tracer, the app is currently based on QR codes, which allow users to record their location but only if they actively scan QR codes at participating businesses.

Bluetooth tracing is passive and acts in the background. However, in the months since the Cabinet paper was first written, issues around the accuracy of the technology and its interactions with other apps on smartphones have raised questions as to the overall efficacy of Bluetooth strategies. Moreover, tracing contacts between two devices means that significant numbers of people must use the app for it to be effective, as the below chart shows.

The Cabinet paper acknowledged some of this.

"The epidemiological value of a Bluetooth app will increase exponentially with uptake," it noted.

"A very high proportion of New Zealanders have smart phones. In the interests of digital inclusion, the Government could actively supply Bluetooth-enabled phones to some people (which may be an option). Officials will also explore options to use Bluetooth-enabled tags for those who may not or should not have a smartphone (eg children)."

The latter idea sounds similar to what has happened in Singapore, where Bluetooth-enabled wearable devices have been distributed to those without smartphones, although these are compatible with Singapore's app. This is different from the proposed CovidCard in New Zealand, which would not integrate with a Bluetooth app and would be distributed to every New Zealander.

The Cabinet paper also entertains the idea of using mobile phone location data. However, much of this section is redacted, making it difficult to know what conclusions the Government reached.

Mandating QR codes?

The batch of government documents released on Friday also contained a June 8 Cabinet paper written by Jacinda Ardern, reviewing how Level 2 operated and how Level 1 should operate. In the paper, Ardern raises the possibility of requiring businesses to display official, NZ COVID Tracer-compatible QR codes - something that Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield argued for at the time.

A legal requirement would mean the Government would have to issue an order under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act 2020, requiring businesses to display QR codes or face potential fines or prison time.

"A government-issued QR code would be required to be displayed in situations where a person customarily carries on a business, service or undertaking at a premises, and where visitors, customers or clients regularly come on the premises. This would include voluntary, social, recreational and religious activities," Ardern wrote.

"These QR codes would need to be prominently displayed near any main entrances and exits to the premises. They would be able to be scanned with the Tracer app. There would be exemptions for entities where it is not reasonably practical or necessary for them to obtain, display or enable the use of a government-issued QR code."

Anyone who intentionally refused to comply could face six months' prison or a fine of up to $4,000, while other forms of non-compliance could see a fine of up to $1,000.

Officials advised Ardern that any such requirement would have to come into effect no earlier than June 23, in order to give businesses time to comply.

However, Ardern ultimately went with a voluntary approach, citing the regulatory burden and the difficulty, at the time, of generating QR codes for businesses. That system has since been streamlined and Ardern noted that a mandate could come into effect after QR codes were made more accessible.

The Health Minister - at that time, David Clark - was instructed to report back on June 29 as to whether the voluntary approach was working. That report was not released in Friday's documents.

However, on July 15, current Health Minister Chris Hipkins and Ardern both warned in separate press conferences that they would entertain requiring businesses to display QR codes if uptake didn't increase.

Over the next three days, as many as 600 new businesses printed out QR codes, but the numbers have since flatlined at about 40 a day.

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