Covid-19

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Govt able to use app to notify those exposed to Covid-19

The Government is rolling out an update to the NZ COVID Tracer app that will make it more effective, Marc Daalder reports

A new functionality will be added to the Government's official contact tracing app, allowing it to contact users who may have been exposed to Covid-19 and giving them the option of voluntarily sending their location history to public health officials.

The update is expected to roll out on Wednesday evening. It will mean that if a person who tests positive for Covid-19 visited a particular location, the Government can have the app notify everyone who scanned the official QR code at that location during the period of concern.

This notification will be based on the data stored on users' phones and will not entail officials accessing users' location data. However, a second added functionality of the app will allow people to directly send the list of locations they scanned using the app to health officials if required. This would be voluntary - people who have downloaded and used the app will not be forced to use it to share their information.

A third aspect of the update will add vibration to phones when scanning QR codes to allow people who are visually impaired to use the app more easily.

Until this update, the app has been little more than a digital diary of the places users have been. When a person scans an official QR code with the app, the time, date and associated business are recorded and stored on their phone. The only way to send that information to the Government would be to recite it out loud and users would have no way of knowing if a place they scanned into was also visited by someone who later turned out to have Covid-19.

For more on the app, see this Newsroom explainer.

Businesses are still not required to print out and use the official QR codes. It is unclear exactly how many are currently participating, but the number is far fewer than the 62,000 "high-traffic" businesses the Ministry of Health has said it wants to reach. Just 541,000 New Zealanders have registered on the app, as of Wednesday.

If someone visits a location and later tests positive for Covid-19, health officials currently have no way of effectively notifying others who may have been at that location at the same time. With the app update, that will change for those who use the app at participating businesses. However, many potential contacts will still be left out - something that has epidemiologists concerned.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said that in such a situation, the Ministry of Health would advise all people who visited the given establishment at a particular time to reach out to contact tracing teams.

Instances such as this, where health officials had to use social media and the news media to publicise that people who visited particular establishments may have been exposed to Covid-19, were seen frequently prior to the Level 4 lockdown. The reliance on public appeals for information could leave many people exposed to the virus out of the loop.

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