3 Mar 2021

Covid-19: Chris Hipkins confirms CovidCard not practical

10:01 am on 3 March 2021

Predictions the long-awaited bluetooth CovidCard is likely dead in the water seem to have been well-founded after comments by Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins  17/02/21

Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins says the CovidCard technology has limited worth to the government. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The government first ordered trials of the bluetooth tracing technology in August, the latest trial finishing in December at the Bay Plaza MIQ facility.

The report, which is due to be released, has not yet been made public.

However, Hipkins told Morning Report the trial had exposed issues with the technology as well as impracticalities in its day-to-day use.

"It wasn't hugely successful. It did highlight some difficulties with the technology itself, with the card perhaps not picking up all of the content that it needed to pick up. Ultimately it wasn't adding anything that the bluetooth functionality on someone's phone couldn't do a bit more reliably," he said.

"Effectively we've gone with a form of Covid card in the sense that the bluetooth functionality on people's phones, if they've switched it on, does more or less the same thing. We did try it out in a managed-isolation facility and we found that the results weren't necessarily as helpful or useful.

"There was a lot of human elements in here, which is why we do a trial. People would take their card off and leave it at work overnight and it would be picking up a whole lot of contacts overnight when then person wasn't even there. There was a whole lot of things that highlighted it wasn't going to be the magical solution that people thought it would be."

Dr Andrew Chen from the University of Auckland's Koi Tū: Centre for Informed Futures had predicted it was unlikely the government would want to use both a Covid card and the bluetooth function now added to the tracer app.

"Any new bluetooth wearable technology probably has to be something that's compatible with the Apple/Google exposure notification framework that is used in the app and so for that reason I don't think Covid card as it was envisioned last year is likely to happen now," he said.

Dr Chen said because the vaccine is coming there isn't as much of a need of a cove card as there would have been mid-last year.

He didn't rule out some form of Covid card still being used in New Zealand.

"I know that Apple and Google have been working on wearable devices that support their protocol, so those might become available in New Zealand for targeted populations, for example, the elderly or other vulnerable populations that may not have access to smart phones," he said.

"That all seems to be a while away though," he said.

Hipkins was less than enthusiastic about pursuing big corporate wearable devices.

"We've been looking at a range of technology options, obviously our bluetooth contact tracing technology has been on one the mainstays of what we've been doing in this area," he said.

"But where people are using other technology Apple watches, Fitbits and so on, that's not unhelpful but it's something that would be very difficult to do at scale for everybody."

The government has been investigating if returnees and border workers should use a phone app that can detect Covid-19 two or three days before symptoms set in.

Chen said the CovidCard proposal was well intentioned at the time, but it's now well past the time to still be looking back at this proposal.

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