Businesses are desperate to know what minimum amount of contact tracing they must provide or invest in to operate under alert level 3 or, in just under three weeks, level 2.

An app developer says this can be done cheaply and well, but only if the government urgently sets out the standards any technology must meet.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern explained on Monday that alert level 3 means widening who can open their doors, from businesses that are “essential”, to those that are “safe”.

Finance Minister Grant Roberston told a BusinessNZ video call with major companies that to be safe, “the critical questions are: is it possible for your business to have social distancing? Can you build in contact tracing tools or mechanisms to keep track of your supply chain and customers?”

Asked by RNZ to elaborate last night, he said only that the Ministry of Health and Internal Affairs “are leading work on an app to help businesses with contact tracing at level 3”.

The questions businesses have include; regardless of which way they do the tracing, if a Covid-19 test comes up positive, are they legally obliged to hand a record of customer or staff movements over to authorities, or does that risk a privacy breach?

Employers and Manufacturers Association chief executive Brett O’Riley wants an answer on that before the lockdown ends at midnight Monday.

“That was an issue that came up on one of our webinars and it’s part of our issues register that we’re pursuing with MBIE and WorkSafe. We’ll aim to have that answer out before we go into level 3,” O’Riley said.

The top two questions from 1700 businesses that have taken part in five webinars since Monday, were about physical distancing, and contact tracing, he said.

WorkSafe is taking part in these webinars.

There are no end of official guidelines about level 3 from WorkSafe and other agencies, but businesses say the “how-to” is lacking, and are wondering what that “how-to” could cost them – either in dollars if they do choose to invest in tracing technology – or in the ability to open at all if they don’t.

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford is writing to the government seeking answers.

“Technology can play a really vital role in contact tracing but it’s not clear exactly what it is that the government is wanting businesses to do in that space,” Harford said.

“And if there’s something that businesses need to spend time setting up, or investing in, it would be helpful to know sooner rather than later what the government requirement is.”

That included what technology, if any, the government favoured, he said.

But a software developer of an app to manage queueing said he had met only a brick wall with his questions to authorities about how high the standards must be for collecting data, then sharing it with government.

“It’s super critical as soon as possible there are details about expectations on what data needs to be collected, what format it needs to be held in, what encryption or privacy is necessary to be an approved application,” said James Burnes of US and Queenstown-based start-up Safer Lines.

“So that small business owners can make an informed decision about which technology they should be choosing and which ones to avoid.”

He warned that otherwise, businesses might buy complex expensive tracing technology when he could see a $30-a-month (plus set up fee) app doing the job.

The information vacuum risked birthing a plethora of tech options, with varied or no accreditation or testing, when the aim should be to have a single tech tracing solution – even if it were to knock his own app out – Burnes said.

“By making a statement about what those standards … are going to be, it will quickly take many, many choices off the table, and more importantly it will create one or maybe two main platforms that consumers are used to, and expect to use whenever they go out.

“When they roll out the tool for the consumer, that same exact tool should be what’s being used for the check-in processes at businesses.”

The prime minister has said very basic pen-and-paper record keeping by individuals could really help with tracing if the virus flares up.

But that low-tech approach might flounder at businesses due to its slowness.

O’Riley said his association was looking at some of the high-tech options to see if there was anything it could recommend – though mostly it was referring the many approaches it was fielding from tech developers on to the Covid-19 national command centre – but that, at a minimum, low-tech should work for now.

Businesses had to assume that contact tracing at workplaces would be required even under level 2, though again, MBIE and WorkSafe had not spelled that out, he said.

“I think we would want to maintain contact tracing as long as feasibly possible.”

But the onus should not be on each business.

“If this was going to be a feature of the employment landscape long term, we’d like to think there was an opportunity to develop something that all businesses could access, rather than individual businesses having to develop their own process.”

Some industry sources suggested to RNZ the government may be veering towards a non-invasive app, at least in the short term, where a shop pastes a QR code to their door, and people must scan each code at each shop to get in, with their phone then recording what shop they were at and when.

The Employers and Manufacturers Association is telling businesses to each reconfigure all staff inductions and advice to factor in safe operation during the pandemic.

This article was originally published on RNZ and re-published with permission.

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