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Govt app quietly rolls out daily health check-ins

A Government WhatsApp channel created to distribute information about Covid-19 can now perform automated daily health check-ins, Marc Daalder reports

"How are you feeling today?"

That's the question the New Zealand Government's official WhatsApp channel asked me at around 10am.

The new function is currently in a "soft launch" period, according to the Ministry of Health, and was first rolled out on April 21. If you opt in, the app will send you a notification every morning to ask how you're feeling. That data will then be sent to the Ministry to help track the progress of the virus.

At the moment, only around 500 check-ins are being completed each day.

Newsroom first reported in early April that the WhatsApp channel, developed for the Government by New Zealand firm ClearPoint, had the capacity to be scaled up for "pandemic tracking and mapping".

The majority of the app is still geared towards providing information about Covid-19 and the Government's response, including the current alert level, the likely symptoms and the latest cases in the country.

However, the main menu now prominently asks users to enrol themselves in the voluntary daily check-in function.

"Important To help detect any Covid-19 cases in the community as early as possible, complete a Daily Health Check-in," the app instructs.

After performing the first check-in, the app asks, "Can we remind you to do another Daily Health Check-in tomorrow?"

I opted in yesterday, providing my birth year and postal code, and, sure enough, at 9.41am this morning the Government messaged me over WhatsApp to ask how I was feeling.

"Hi there, it's time to do your Daily Health Check-in. It should only take 30 seconds," the message said.

When I (falsely) told the app I was feeling unwell, with shortness of breath, a cough, a sore throat, a fever and chills and a loss of sense of smell, it recommended I seek medical attention.

"Based on your reported symptoms, we think you should seek further advice. If you feel you have a health emergency for yourself or your whānau, you should call 111. If you are worried about your health or want further support you should call your GP or call HealthLine for free on 0800 611 116," the app helpfully advised.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson confirmed the daily health check-in was in the early stages of operation.

"The Daily Health Check-In feature was 'soft-launched' on the 21st of April 2020. It is still currently in the 'soft launch' period. No decision on timing has been made for a wider launch or promotion," the spokesperson said.

"We are in the soft-launch period for the Daily Health Check-in without promotion, so numbers per day are reflective of that at about 500 per day. If someone reports severe Covid-19 symptoms they are directed to where they can seek help such as from their GP, HealthLine or contacting 111 in an emergency situation. The Daily Health Check-In is not a self-diagnosis tool and does not indicate if the person has Covid-19, only a medical professional can provide that advice."

When asked what the data would be used for, the spokesperson said: "The Ministry of Health will use the data to support their work on leading indicators around the progress of the virus in New Zealand."

The full privacy policy, found on the Department of Internal Affairs website, elaborates on this.

"When you share information about your symptoms with the Daily Health Check-in, that information is provided to the Ministry of Health so that they can see how common symptoms are across New Zealand. The Ministry of Health receives a 'dashboard' of statistics that they will use for health purposes. The Department of Internal Affairs does not see or use the information you provide about your symptoms," the policy states.

"It is important to know that your name is not sent with your symptoms to the Ministry of Health, your doctor, or your local District Health Board. Your WhatsApp user name and mobile phone number are not sent to the Ministry of Health."

A pitch document for how the app could be scaled up, reviewed by Newsroom in early April, said, "the capture and geospatial visualisation of this data will allow us to see the virus move and change in almost real time."

The data will not be shared with anyone else, "including companies and other government agencies", the privacy policy says.

It is unclear exactly how long data is stored for, with the privacy policy only stating it will be "a short amount of time" and would be "permanently deleted when it is no longer required".

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