Friday set a record for most QR code scans in a single day, but it’s still too early to tell whether the mandatory record-keeping policy will keep numbers that high, Marc Daalder reports

With most of New Zealand now at Level 2, the number of QR code scans reported each day has skyrocketed to a new record.

In the 24 hours to noon on Friday, 2.65 million QR codes were scanned around the country. That’s 140,000 more than the previous record, set in September 2020, and well above the 530,000 or so daily scans that we were averaging before the country moved to Level 4.

Digital contact tracing expert Andrew Chen told Newsroom that the numbers are likely a result of two factors: People feel the situation is riskier than it was prior to lockdown and the Government has now mandated either scanning in or manually signing in at most venues. However, it's hard to say which of these is more responsible for the big uptick in scanning.

"When we [had the second wave] last year in August, we also saw a significant bump and that would be due to perception of risk," he said.

"Right now, we are also seeing relatively high perception of risk and so it is expected that there would be increased activity anyway, even without mandatory record-keeping."

However, a closer look at the NZ COVID Tracer data can reveal a more nuanced picture of usage of the app.

Prior to lockdown, about 1.5 million New Zealanders had Bluetooth tracing enabled on their phone – a figure that had been more or less flat since the Delta scare in Wellington.

That doesn't necessarily mean they were all active users, but they had downloaded the app and switched on the Bluetooth tracing function at a minimum.

That figure is now at about two million and still rising, showing that some 500,000 people have switched on Bluetooth in the past month.

We don't know exactly how many members of the team of five million have the ability to access and use the app - some people might not have the right type of phone, others may not have the digital literacy, and others still are children. Chen's best guess, after accounting for these factors, is around 3.2 million New Zealanders. 

Clearly, there's still work to do to get another million or so people signed up to the app.

What about the people who have the app downloaded, but aren't using it? Here, the Bluetooth figure is a useful rough estimate for the total number of people who have downloaded the app and checked it at least once since December 10, when the Bluetooth function was added.

Since most of the country moved to Level 2, about 55 percent of those with Bluetooth enabled have either scanned in or made a manual entry on any given day. So just over half of the two million app users can really be considered active.

There is, however, a caveat here, Chen says.

"The fact that there's two million devices using Bluetooth tracing and there's only about 1.1 million scanning a QR code or doing a manual entry, of course there will be plenty of people with Bluetooth tracing enabled who are at home. So that may not be a problem right now, but eventually we would like to see the number of people scanning QR codes is the same as the number of people who have Bluetooth tracing on," he said.

"If they have Bluetooth tracing on, it shows that they can do it. They have the app, they have the capability to scan QR codes and do manual entries."

It's also important to note that the recent jump in scans is not solely due to more people downloading the app, but also people visiting more places as lockdown restrictions ease. Prior to lockdown, there were about 1.9 QR code scans or manual entries per active user per day. That dropped to just 1.5 per user at the height of Level 4, with most people staying home or only visiting the supermarket.

Now that most New Zealanders are in Level 2, however, there are around 2.35 scans or entries per person. To Chen, that signals people are out and about now more than they were during Level 1 before the lockdown. A similar spike happened when Auckland left its first February lockdown earlier this year.

In the end, Chen expects that number to settle down at around 1.9 or 2, after another brief spike whenever Auckland leaves lockdown. But his real focus will be the number of Bluetooth users, the number of active users, and the number of scans. He expects all three stats to continue to rise as restrictions ease, with the first two likely capped at around 3.2 million and the latter at between five and six million.

Reaching those thresholds isn't guaranteed. Neither is the sustainability or longevity of the boost in scanning and general app usage. Previous outbreaks have seen big spikes and then a steady regression. Chen says we're unlikely to see levels as low as we saw prior to lockdown, but there's no guarantee they'll stay at their eventual peak either.

"I'm basically looking for the QR code scan numbers to keep going up as the alert levels drop and then for those scan rates to stay up over time. If they do gradually drop, week on week, that would be an indication that the mandatory record-keeping policy is losing its effectiveness."

It's still far too early to tell whether that will happen. But if it does, Chen says, greater enforcement of the rules might be needed.

Right now, people are legally required to either scan or sign in at most venues but the businesses themselves aren't required to enforce that - they just have to make sure they have "systems and processes in place to enable" the record-keeping.

He says the policy could evolve like mask-wearing has, from an unenforced requirement on public transport to a mandate that many businesses now task staff with enforcing.

"This is what I called an unenforced mandate, which will lead to some behaviour change, but if we don't think it's leading to enough behaviour change, then the next step is an enforced mandate."

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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