Dr Ashley Bloomfield suggested the change was made recently. Pool photo: Mark Mitchell

The Government won’t require businesses to make sure that vaccine certificates are actually legitimate under the traffic light system, leaving the door open to widespread rule-breaking, Marc Daalder reports

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield says the rules of the traffic light system could be circumvented because businesses aren’t required to verify the legitimacy of their patrons’ vaccine passes.

Under the new system, a wide range of venues – from restaurants to pubs to gyms – will have capacity limits if they allow unvaccinated people to enter. Those which require proof of vaccination will generally be able to operate without limitation (except at the red setting, in which they’ll be capped at 100 vaccinated patrons).

The Government released on Tuesday a verifier app that can scan any vaccine pass to determine whether it is legitimate or forged. But businesses won’t be required to use this app and could instead let customers in after only looking at their passes.

“If it’s relatively easy to evade the system, people will do it,” University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker said.

A leaky sieve

Andrew Chen, a research fellow at Koi Tū, the Centre for Informed Futures, and an expert on digital contact tracing, told Newsroom that if passes weren’t going to be checked, they may not represent a justified privacy breach.

“There is a cost to having the passes, both financially and socially and ethically. We are accepting that these passes are a necessary and proportionate intrusion on our lives because of public health risk,” he said.

“If they are ineffective at reducing public health risk, because they’re not actually being verified, then they are no longer justified and proportionate. [In that case] we should get rid of them because otherwise we may be perpetrating harms.”

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told Newsroom that mandating use “wouldn’t necessarily be practical in all contexts”. He said the Government could still make some changes to impose a requirement to use it for some customers, but that it probably wouldn’t be for every person.

“One of the things that we will consider is whether there should be a requirement to check a certain proportion of passes. We haven’t made a decision about those sorts of things yet,” he said.

“I think it’s unlikely that we would require that people use the verifier app for every single person who might be coming into their premises.”

Chen suggested this still might not be good enough.

“If they want to do a certain percentage, then maybe there’s a question of what percentage that is. But then it just becomes a question of how leaky is your sieve, right?”

Ministry of Health caught by surprise

The decision not to require passes to be verified appears to have been made recently. On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health website still said that “visually checking passes isn’t enough to allow entry. Scanning someone’s pass proves that it is authentic, valid and has not expired.”

A spokesperson for Hipkins told Stuff that the language was the result of an “early assumption”.

But Bloomfield told Newsroom on Wednesday that the decision not to require use of the verifier app was a change in policy and that he had only discussed it with officials on Tuesday night.

“Yes it is a change, I discussed it with my team last night and the information on the website has been updated.”

He also said he hadn’t provided specific health advice on whether the verifier should be used but that the officials who made it wanted it to be used.

“We didn’t provide specific advice on this. The team that developed this are very supportive and enthusiastic about its use, and how helpful it will be and the level of assurance it will provide, so they were keen to see it used as widely as possible.”

Use it or ditch it

Chen said he was worried that the vaccine pass would go through the same journey as the NZ COVID Tracer app, which was voluntary at first, before businesses were required to display QR code posters and now scanning or manually signing in is also mandatory. But the vaccine pass represented a greater breach of privacy and therefore should either be used in a way that’s effective or ditched.

“We saw in the early months that NZ COVID Tracer wasn’t very effective because they didn’t require the use of the tool,” he said.

“If it’s optional to scan a vaccine pass, we will potentially see limited effectiveness from it. We could save ourselves a lot of stress and drama if this is a tool that’s not actually going to be effective.”

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has touted the high-tech nature of the pass.

“From what I’ve seen, most countries have run pretty crude systems. Some have just used cardboard passes similar to what you received when you were vaccinated,” she said.

“We have developed something that has more integrity behind it than that.”

Does it really have much more integrity if anyone can print out a fake pass and get away with it, given businesses don’t have to check that passes are real?

“If you want to have this tool, then you should make sure it’s actually being used,” Chen said.

The broader ramifications of the failure to use the verifier could be significant. The Government is prepared to let Covid-19 spread throughout New Zealand because it believes the restrictions of the traffic light system will keep a lid on outbreak growth.

Those restrictions are almost entirely premised on separating the vaccinated from the unvaccinated and stopping large numbers of unvaccinated people from gathering together. If vaccine passes aren’t checked, unvaccinated people will be able to enter venues with no capacity limits and interact with the vaccinated, potentially allowing the virus to spread to a much larger cohort of people.

In other words, Baker said, the traffic light system is broken without a credible vaccine pass. The Government has developed a credible vaccine pass, but now plans not to use it to its fullest extent.

“From a risk management point of view, it’s vital that we have a really robust system for managing these certificates, otherwise it’s going to defeat the point of having them.”

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

Leave a comment