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Is CovidCard really a silver bullet?

Analysis: The CovidCard wouldn't necessarily avoid the low uptake problems that have plagued the Government's NZ COVID Tracer app, Marc Daalder reports

Pressure from a private sector group behind the $100 million plan to supply every New Zealander with a Bluetooth-enabled CovidCard has mounted in recent days.

The Government has acknowledged since April that the CovidCard scheme was one of several options it was examining for digital contact tracing. However, in the intervening period, it debuted its NZ COVID Tracer app, which uses QR codes to record location on the user's phone.

The app has been plagued by low uptake issues, with only one in eight Kiwis downloading and registering it and just one in 60 of those users actually scanning a QR code on a given day. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Hipkins both pleaded with the general population to download and use the app.

CovidCard lobbying may have stalled

Meanwhile, the CovidCard team has continued lobbying the Government. A pitch document dated June 5 and obtained by Newsroom revealed that the card was trialled twice - once at Nelson Hospital in early May, as Newsroom previously reported, and once in the Waikato, later in May.

This latter trial "simulated common interactions across a range of scenarios including an office environment, a cafe/restaurant, a construction site, taxi/Uber trips and a house party/social function," the document states.

Over the two trials, 90.3 percent of close contacts - defined as being within two metres of someone for 15 minutes or longer - were successfully recorded by the CovidCard, according to the document. Information on the false positive rate was less certain, but the document's authors state they think it could be reduced to 10 percent.

In June, Jacinda Ardern reiterated that the CovidCard was still on the cards, saying there was "enthusiasm" for more exploration of the idea. This followed reporting from Newsroom that the Government was seeking someone to independently vet the concept.

On Friday morning, TradeMe founder Sam Morgan revealed in an op-ed for Newsroom that he was part of the team behind the CovidCard. The pitch document also lists prominent businessmen Rob Fyfe and former Xero chief operating officer Alastair Grigg, University of Otago public health experts Tim Chambers and Andy Anglemyer, and tech developers like ClearPoint, which designed the Government's official WhatsApp channel, as being involved in the project.

That Morgan was forced to go public indicates the Government may have cooled on the concept. The pitch document notes that further work on the card will only go ahead "alongside in-principle support for a population-wide deployment".

Can CovidCard solve uptake?

In his opinion piece, Morgan claims that the CovidCard could solve the problem plaguing the NZ COVID Tracer app: uptake.

However, Andrew Chen, an expert in technology and society and a research fellow at the University of Auckland's Koi Tū - the Centre for Informed Futures, is more doubtful.

Chen told Newsroom that CovidCard does avoid two barriers to uptake: downloading an app would be replaced by the proactive provision of a card and scanning QR codes would be replaced by passive Bluetooth proximity tracing.

For him, the NZ COVID Tracer usage numbers indicate one of these is a far bigger barrier than the other. After accounting for children and those without smartphones, one in six eligible New Zealanders has downloaded and registered the app - that's 611,000 people, nothing to sniff at.

Of those, however, just one in sixty will scan even a single QR code on any given day. That could be due to the relative rarity of finding QR codes outside establishments, confusion regarding what QR code to scan or even just plain forgetfulness.

That latter issue can be avoided by any Bluetooth technology, Chen says - a CovidCard isn't the only solution. The Government could add Bluetooth functionality to NZ COVID Tracer and could even use the Apple/Google contact tracing protocol that solves interoperability issues.

"Most of the complaints about app-based systems would also apply to CovidCard if they had the same rules in terms of voluntary participation," Chen said.

In other words, so long as bringing your CovidCard with you is just as optional as downloading the app, Chen doesn't think there's reason to expect significantly higher CovidCard uptake.

Voluntary or mandatory system?

Morgan himself acknowledges this as an issue, writing in his piece, "CovidCard is not necessarily a slam dunk. You need to believe that New Zealand can achieve widespread usage. Achieving that might ultimately require a degree of mandating in places of congregation."

For Chen, this changes the conversation. Of course CovidCard would be more effective than a Bluetooth app if you need a CovidCard to get into the supermarket but the app is voluntary.

"If we had the same type of effectively mandatory approach with an Apple/Google solution, you would effectively have the same level of performance," he said.

"For me it's not a fair comparison when he makes these kinds of complaints, to say that obviously CovidCard is better than an app, that an app will never work, because a lot of these things are non-technical decisions. It's not about the design of the technology, it's about the design of the overall system, including policy and all of that."

What are the chances of an "effectively mandatory" CovidCard or Bluetooth app? Likely low.

The Government has proven reluctant to require businesses to display official QR posters, a move that still wouldn't mandate customers to scan those posters.

Ardern has also previously emphasised that any digital contact tracing solution the Government uses must be voluntary.

"Ultimately, the decision is that we either have something that everyone is forced to use or we have something that people voluntarily use, but we try and get as much uptake as possible," she said on April 9.

"There are huge issues with forcing people to use apps that track their movements, as you can imagine, so we are opting for apps that people choose to partake in."

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