The Government is considering handing out a Bluetooth-enabled CovidCard to every New Zealander to aid with contact tracing efforts. Screenshot from CovidCard presentation.

The Government has announced it will test run the CovidCard contact tracing system in Rotorua, Marc Daalder reports

The plan to give every New Zealander a Bluetooth-enabled CovidCard for contact tracing is one step closer to fruition.

On Thursday, Health Minister Chris Hipkins and Government Digital Services Minister Kris Faafoi announced that the Government would fund a large trial of the technology in Rotorua.

The trial will involve 250 to 300 people, Faafoi said, and Rotorua was chosen after careful consultation with iwi and community leaders.

“This research will allow us to understand how the cards would work in a real-world scenario, whether they are compatible with our contact tracing systems, and whether the public would accept and use the cards if they were rolled out.”

Caution in exploring proposal

Faafoi confirmed that the Government had funded a previously-reported trial in Nelson Hospital which “found the CovidCard works under controlled conditions, so we believe there is merit in exploring it further”. A second trial also occurred in the Waikato in mid-May.

Hipkins cautioned that the decision to undertake a new trial did not indicate the CovidCard was a shoe-in.

“It’s fair to say that no single technology to ‘solve’ contact tracing has been identified anywhere in the world. That’s why we need to explore all available technology options,” he said.

“We are continuing to improve the NZ COVID Tracer app, which includes looking at how technologies like Bluetooth can be utilised to further support contact tracing and have also been investigating the proposed CovidCard.”

Government advisors in late July cautioned the Government to do its due diligence before going ahead with the CovidCard proposal.

“I agree that the NZ COVID Tracer app has been a flop. But there is a significant chance that CovidCard could flop just as spectacularly,” Dave Heatley, a principal advisor to the Productivity Commission, wrote in a blog post on July 21.

The same day, Privacy Commissioner John Edwards aired his own concerns.

“The CovidCard would be designed based on what we know today and we would be stuck with that for a year with no ability to adapt or change or learn from the experience of other countries, or of how the card operates in New Zealand,” he said.

Mandatory or voluntary?

Tech and society expert Andrew Chen had his own concerns when he spoke to Newsroom about the project in July.

“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, a research fellow at the University of Auckland’s Koi Tū – the Centre for Informed Futures, 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.

CovidCard backer and Trade Me founder Sam Morgan authored an opinion piece for Newsroom in which he shared those concerns, writing, “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.

However, Faafoi and Hipkins said in their press release that it is not anticipated that the CovidCard would be mandatory.

A final decision on whether to deploy the project will be made later in the year.

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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