2 Sep 2020

2.1 million download Covid Tracer app, but who is signing in?

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 2 September 2020

It is back to basics with the government's latest Covid-19 tracking tool - a paper pamphlet to be used by anyone who does not have a smartphone.

More than two million people have downloaded the NZ COVID Tracer app, but the number of daily scans indicate it is far from tracking every movement.

The government hopes old-fashioned pen and paper can provide further backup to map any future outbreaks.

"If you don't have a smart phone I am very pleased to tell you that we are now producing a little booklet that you can use," Health Minister Chris Hipkins said at the Covid-19 media briefing today.

"These will be distributed from next week onwards. They allow you to keep a manual paper diary; we're aware that some of our senior citizens in particular prefer to keep a paper record of where they have been."

The booklets will be distributed in packs of 10, and the government is asking community organisations to order copies to distribute.

"Particularly senior citizens groups, those in other parts of the community where technology may not be as appropriate or as readily taken up."

Hipkins urged New Zealanders to keep track of their movements. "If you're not using the app, then we ask you to keep track of your movements in some other way."

The app has now been downloaded more than two million times. Whether New Zealanders are actually using it is another question.

Auckland locksmith Kelvin Green is doing everything he can to enforce the rules but is still getting resistance from customers.

"We've got QR codes on the back doors, the front door and the counter here and we remind them before we serve them as to whether or not they've signed in, and we have a paper register as well.

"We've probably got about 40 percent of people who sign in when we actually tell them."

Some people forget, and one customer was very reticent to provide contact details, but eventually customers have been compliant, Green said.

"If they want service, they've got to sign in."

At least 2.1 million scans were recorded on Tuesday, averaging at just over one scan per account per day. Thousands of people are still not registering their movements.

On the streets of Auckland, people were varied in how they kept track of their movements, with many using the app, others finding the technology too difficult, and others simply preferring pen and paper.

Auckland buses are still a gap in the city's Covid-19 tracing efforts. QR codes aren't compulsory on buses until Friday, despite buses being linked to the latest cluster.

"It's the first time this morning I've taken public transport and I completely forgot about [the QR code], I hadn't noticed it when I got on," one commuter told Checkpoint.

Covid-19 data modelling expert Professor Shaun Hendy said the tracer app could not be relied on completely by itself.

"Digital apps in general have been oversold. They're part of the puzzle but they're not a silver bullet," he said.

Wednesday's pamphlet promotion comes after tech entrepreneurs criticised the government's slow response in rolling out a CovidCard.

The proposed card uses Bluetooth technology to help with more efficient mass contact tracing. Professor Hendy told Checkpoint some claims around it were overblown.

"What makes them really useful is when they can be integrated into the manual contact tracing system.

"One of the weaknesses of CovidCard is once it was deployed you couldn't update it. So it would be harder to have it work in an integrated way with the health system," he said.

About 50 percent of New Zealanders aged over 18 have downloaded the app. That compares to 37 percent in Ireland and 24 percent in Australia.

However, Prof Hendy said New Zealand still had some way to go.

"It's not yet at the level we'd like to see it at, but it is useful and I'd love to see that sustained now we're back in level 2.5 and level 2. Usage and new sign-ups had dropped away during our 102 days without new cases.

"It's good to see it pick up, but we need to lift that higher."