9 Apr 2020

App being developed to improve Covid-19 contact tracing

4:25 pm on 9 April 2020

The Ministry of Health is working on a locally developed app to improve the tracing of the contacts of Covid-19 cases, the Prime Minister says.

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Photo: 123RF

However, the ministry's existing system so far does not have advanced technology augmenting it, so lacks the capacity epidemiologists says it must have, after lockdown, to cope with any virus flare-up.

Jacinda Ardern said the app is in the early stages of development and will have basic functionality.

"But even that will be important as it will help update our national health database with users' contact details.

"Then they will look to add functions."

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

In Singapore, Tracetogether uses Bluetooth for close-range swapping of contact information by smartphones, and is an opt-in smartphone app.

"The data is stored on the phone and if the user tests positive, they then release the data to the government for contact tracing. Close contacts can then be automatically notified of the need to self-isolate and be tested.

"I have a phone call with Prime Minister Lee of Singapore this evening where I'll be discussing this technology further," Ardern said.

Government Technology Agency (GovTech) staff demonstrate Singapore's new contact-tracing smarthphone app called TraceTogether, as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in Singapore .

Photo: AFP

The technology would be made open source, for free use, "in the next few weeks", she said.

It was not perfect technology, Ardern said.

"What's most important is that you have good people, and enough people, working on contact tracing as quickly as possible. We do and we continue to improve."

The ministry's national tracing centre has 190 staff. They work with an unspecified number of regional public health tracing workers.

See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19

Wuhan, at its height of Covid-19 cases, had 9000 staff doing contact tracing in a city with 11 million people.

New Zealand has the current capacity to track down 700 close contacts of sick people per day; Singapore, which has a similar population, has the capacity to find 4000.

Asked if app users would have veto over their personal information being used or held, Ardern said it would be up to individuals whether to use any such technology in the first place.

"That's been a feature of many of the countries who have used these apps, they've been voluntary.

"But I have to say, for it to be successful, we would need wide uptake.

"So, we would really need the public to buy into the idea that this will help protect them and particularly families."

Singapore had one million people upload Tracetogether. This week the city-state went into lockdown, though it had stayed relatively open economically for weeks at the end of which time its total number of Covid-19 cases is about the same as New Zealand's.

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