Health officials asked Cabinet to require businesses to display NZ COVID Tracer QR codes in July, but it took a second outbreak for the display of the codes to become mandatory, Marc Daalder reports

Health officials repeatedly pressed the Government to make the display of QR codes for the official contact tracing app a requirement.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield publicly raised the idea in June, just prior to the move down to Level 2. But new documents released by the Government show officials continued to push for the mandatory display of QR codes well into July, even as daily scan counts dwindled and reports emerged of businesses removing codes they had already printed out.

On July 15, Newsroom reported that just one in eight New Zealanders had registered on the app and of these just one in 60 scanned a single QR code on any given day. Even after accounting for those under 13 and people without access to a smartphone or an internet connection, just one in six of those eligible to download and register the app had done so.

The same day, Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister Chris Hipkins separately pleaded with New Zealanders to start downloading the app. If usage didn’t increase, they warned that the Government could impose a requirement on businesses to display official QR codes.

Two days later, a paper taken to Cabinet noted “that currently declining numbers using the COVID Tracer app could undermine the ability to undertake contact tracing rapidly should another outbreak of Covid-19 occur”.

In the paper, health officials asked for permission to draft a health order under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act 2020 which would require businesses to display the codes. Cabinet agreed to this and asked for another set of advice about other ways to increase usage of the app.

The process to draft the order was expected to take five weeks, but was accelerated when Covid-19 re-emerged in New Zealand in August. After that, a new health order by Hipkins made the display of the codes a requirement at all alert levels.

In the second set of advice, provided on August 3, officials discussed plans for a major publicity campaign, meant to kick off the week of August 8. It would involve “TV, online, radio, print (major dailies) and boosted social media posts […] to encourage uptake and usage of the NZ COVID Tracer app”.

However, this never eventuated – it was likely disrupted by the second outbreak.

Around the same time, Cabinet also signed off on $1 million for a trial of the CovidCard technology. In a Cabinet paper, Government Digital Services Minister Kris Faafoi noted the advantages and disadvantages of the technology. He felt it could address accessibility and usability concerns that existed with the rollout of Bluetooth contact tracing to the NZ COVID Tracer app.

However, he acknowledged, “if there is no community transmission of the virus then many people may not bother to use the card”.

“It has not been established how the CovidCard would work with manual contact tracing and other technology solutions, such as the NZ COVID Tracer app. Additionally, given the focus has been on investigating the CovidCard, further analysis would be required to assess if investing in the high-cost CovidCard is the best option compared to investing in manual contact tracing or other technology solutions,” Faafoi wrote.

A trial of a Bluetooth app was also planned. In recent days, Bloomfield has repeatedly mentioned the possibility of rolling out Bluetooth functionality to the NZ COVID Tracer app, now that it has considerably wider uptake than in July. However, he has also warned about a disturbing – and eerily familiar – trend of declining daily scan numbers.

Scans average in the range of 500,000 a day now, after peaking at 2.5 million in early September.

“There is a continuing reduction in the number of QR code scans per day,” officials warned about a similar pattern in July.

“This reduction in the number of QR scans could make it more difficult to track another outbreak of Covid-19, should it occur in the future, since it will be more difficult to see who has been in contact with a person infected with Covid-19. In short, without the invaluable information provided by the app, health workers need to resort to calling networks of potential associates or ‘close contacts’ in order to identify who may be infected and ensure they do not infect others.”

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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