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Will the Covid Card make its debut?

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 13 August 2020, 8:03 am


Auckland's return to level 3 lockdown has focused attention on our underdeveloped digital contact tracing capability.

While the government claims that 100,000 people downloaded the NZ Covid Tracer app (download it if you haven't already) in the hours following the announcement that Auckland would go into lockdown and the rest of the country would move to level 2, the app is severely limited in its capabilities.

It is based around manual registration when a user enters a business or restaurant, scanning a QR code to check themselves in. With the Government yesterday telling businesses that displaying a QR code to allow check-ins would become "mandatory" in seven days, past experience shows that the public's appetite for sustained use of the app is severely limited.

That's a problem as a reasonable percentage of coverage of the population is needed for digital contact tracing to be of much use in supplementing the manual tracing underway. While it has had some upgrades, the app is also relatively lo-fi in that it doesn't have the ability to use the Bluetooth capability on smartphones to detect and perform a "digital handshake" other app users to automatically register that they have been in close contact.

If we did have extensive community transmission, that capability could come into its own. But most countries have struggled to get sufficient uptake of Bluetooth-based contact tracing apps and there are a host of technical issues that limit their efficacy.

Still life in Bluetooth-based apps

As I wrote over at BusinessDesk yesterday, Ireland is one country that, as a late starter in getting a contact tracing app out launching it on July 7, seems to have made surprisingly good progress. Over 1.6 million people in Ireland have registered for the app and in the last day 77,000 checked into the app to update their health status.

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But Trade Me founded Sam Morgan, who has been assisting the Department of internal Affairs on the technical aspects of digital contact tracing has put his money on a dedicated Covid Card. Rather than relying on a smartphone, the Bluetooth based card communicates with other cards as their owners come within a couple of metres of each other.

It would avoid many of the problems associated with trying to accommodate a wide range of mobile phones. The downside is that every citizen would have to be sent a Covid Card at huge expense - up to $100 million and there's no guarantee that we'd reliably wear them, particularly if brief relapses to lockdown are followed by lengthier returns to business as usual.

There is no real-world experience of a Covid card solution operating at scale to go on. But yesterday, Morgan and Animation Research founder Ian Taylor urged the government to get the Covid Card out there before significant community transmission of the virus again becomes a reality.

"After this lockdown it would be good to have a CovidCard as it may enable us to prevent 'lockdown 3', which is really what we have been positioning for," Morgan told Stuff last night.

"If a CovidCard had been deployed in advance of this situation you would be able to traverse the infection tree upwards to find out where they got it from, and downwards to see who they had given it to." 

Morgan: get the Covid card out now

The government had signalled a couple of weeks ago that it was willing to proceed with a $1 million trial of the Bluetooth Covid card in Rotorua, ironically a destination in recent days of some of the most recently infected Covid carries, causing a flurry of manual contact tracing in the city.

But Morgan and Taylor say that a trial won't prove the efficacy of the technology, which has already been tested in smaller trials, but will instead gain insights into how willingly users accept the technology and whether they keep using it. They want the cards manufactured and distributed now.

The government has stressed that any technology is only part of the tracing effort as it continues to put its focus on hundreds of people employed to hit the phones to track down close contacts of those who have tested positive for Covid-19.

But internationally, governments haven't given up on Bluetooth-based tracing apps yet. Iceland and Germany have also made good progress with their apps in terms of uptake. But it is largely unclear the extent to which the apps are having a real impact on efforts to curb the spread of the disease.

Some argue that the focus should instead be on using data analytics and software to aid in the contact tracing process, helping health officials predict where potentially infected contacts are likely to be and therefore allowing them to speed up their search to locate and test them.



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