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A smarter border - new solutions to an odd problem

Paul Brislen, Editor. 15 July 2020, 5:00 am

With yet more returnees breaking out of quarantine to get a bit of fresh air and go shopping, calls for a technical solution appear to have intensified without any real understanding of either the technology involved or the social aspects of such a service.

Those returning to New Zealand must undergo 14 days in quarantine before being released into the wild, and for some the idea of two weeks in a relatively nice hotel is just too much. Four of them have indeed made their escape, dodged the searchlights and slipped past the guards in search of temporary freedom, only to be returned to the comfort of their appointed facility later in the day.

One tech option being widely touted - the so-called CovidCard - would require all citizens and visitors to New Zealand to carry a unique identifying Bluetooth card that would be used to track every entrance and exit to bars, restaurants, cafes, offices, public transport, buildings, parks and presumably private homes. All such establishments would be required to set up a Bluetooth beacon and the doors would be wired in such a way as to deny entry to anyone not carrying said card.

This seems a tad extreme, to put it mildly, yet the card is being tested at the moment with a view to launching before the end of the year.

The cost of deployment is likely to be in the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars (the cards, the beacons and the associated marketing campaign requiring everyone to get up to speed with carrying not only a state-issued ID card but one that actively monitors their location) and in order to spend that amount support for the idea should be nearly universal. However, Kiwis have a long tradition of not wanting state-issued ID cards, opposing both firearms and drivers licences for many years, and are unlikely to flock to one that reports back to base on their behalf.

However, there are alternatives that could be considered as a way to reduce both cost and increase our border security, and no they don't include snipers equiped with night-vision goggles.

Given we apparently have no community transmission of COVID-19 the problem seems to revolve around the security at these quarantine facilities and the ease with which returnees can get out. Alternative facilities have been used in the past such as the Defence Force base in Northland that was set up to house those returning from Wuhan province in the early days of the outbreak. Sure, it's colder now and the fleet of camper vans are likely to be uninsulated - but moving hundreds of people to that location and setting up similar is likely to cost a lot less than the CovidCard, even if sheepskin slippers are included in the price.

There are of course a number of other facilities that are already locked down - Mount Eden Corrections Centre is close to shops and some nice cafes, but not so easy to slip out of as a downtown hotel, plus since the new building was brought online, the old stone wing is largely unused and could easily be converted into a welcoming secure location.

Finally there are the returnees themselves who might feel that regardless of the surroundings in which they find themselves (room service notwithstanding) they would quite like to make a break for freedom. Why not simply equip all returnees with ankle monitors of the sort widely used for those on home detention. There is already a process for fitting and tracking such devices and we could presumably recycle them at the end of each use thus ensuring we can find those who might be tempted to leg it, assuming of course that they take their ankles with them.


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