Opinion: The Government has neutered a vital tool in New Zealand’s Covid-19-fighting arsenal, Marc Daalder argues

The Ministry of Health may have to resort to public appeals through the media to help contact trace in the event of a second wave of Covid-19.

Under previous alert levels, most shops and restaurants had to maintain some form of contact tracing registry, whether pen-and-paper or through a third-party app like Rippl. This meant that, in the event a patron tested positive for Covid-19, contact tracing teams would be able to reach out to anyone who might have been exposed through being in the same place.

At Level 1, however, that requirement has been lifted. Now, if someone tests positive for Covid-19, public health officials will have no way to contact others who were at the same shops or cafes as the infected person.

Instead, they’ll have to resort to issuing press statements encouraging anyone who did visit the given locations to self-isolate and reach out to the Ministry of Health. This is exactly the situation we were in prior to lockdown – and the dysfunctionality of this system is the reason we moved into Level 4 in the first place.

I have repeatedly pressed politicians and decision-makers, including Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister David Clark about this problem. Every time, without fail, they have pointed to the Government’s contact tracing app as the solution. When Ardern announced the abolition of the contact tracing requirement last week, she did go to some lengths to “encourage” businesses to keep enrolling and using official Government app-compatible QR codes.

While the Government app, NZ COVID Tracer, now has the ability to notify you if you scanned into the same location as someone with Covid-19, the notion that this will protect us is highly misleading at best.

For starters, it assumes that most or even many businesses have signed up to post compatible QR codes at their entrances. The Ministry of Health has long said it hopes to sign up 62,000 “high-traffic” businesses – places like supermarkets, popular cafes and major retail outlets. However, in recent days, the Ministry has stopped releasing the number of business sign-ups.

After a week of pressing, a Ministry spokesperson finally revealed to me that, as of noon on June 15, just 22,036 businesses have created posters. The spokesperson was still unable to say how many of these were high-traffic businesses.

Clearly, Ardern’s encouragement hasn’t filtered down through the economy.

That has meant that the actual number of scans is embarrassingly low. The average NZ COVID Tracer user has scanned fewer than two QR codes since the app was released almost a month ago and just over one in ten people have actually downloaded and registered the app.

Why is business uptake so low? Ardern herself essentially admitted the truth last week: The Government has designed a system that business owners find near-impossible to use, if they want to print out QR codes.

“At the moment, what we’ve opted for is to continue to work with [the retail and hospitality sector] to make it easier for their members to access the QR code. At the moment, accessing the QR code does require you to have your business number and RealMe,” she said.

Because of that, Ardern thinks it would be unfair to require businesses to print out QR codes and then punish them for not doing so, given the reason they aren’t doing it is because the Government’s own system is poorly-designed and difficult to use.

That’s fine, but then why not bring back the old requirement, that let businesses use pen-and-paper sign-in sheets or more accessible third-party tools like Rippl? It just comes down to economics: People are tired of signing in to places and the Government wants to make it as easy as possible to spend money and stimulate the economy.

In the end, though, that argument doesn’t stack up. Sure, a few people may decline to use the mandated contact tracing tools, leading to a little lost business. But compare that to the cost of another few weeks at Level 3 or 4, and the numbers cascade overwhelmingly in favour of reinstating the contact tracing requirement.

Without contact tracing operating as smoothly as possible, the Government is voluntarily neutering our response. New Zealand has achieved something remarkable – a week-long stretch where there were zero active cases of Covid-19.

But the two new cases on Tuesday hammer home the danger of letting our guard down. These people followed the rules and didn’t visit any shops or restaurants, but we won’t always be so lucky. If we want to stay at Level 1 and avert a second wave of infections, then we need to use every tool at our disposal to keep case numbers down – and that starts with contact tracing.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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