28 Apr 2020

Covid-19 contact tracing app: National decries slow pace

8:43 am on 28 April 2020

Two weeks is too long to wait for a contact tracing app for Covid-19, the National Party says.

Michael Woodhouse

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The Ministry of Health yesterday announced a voluntary app to help with contact tracing would launch within a fortnight, using mobile data to track the movements of people with the virus.

The first version of the app would allow pre-registration, giving the ministry up-to-date contact details for users.

National's health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse said the Singaporean government offered the code for its app weeks ago, and the ministry should be moving faster.

He said he did not accept Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield's assurance its contact tracing system was now at a "gold standard".

In a release yesterday, Woodhouse said Health Minister David Clark had admitted "he doesn't know how many close contacts of positive Covid-19 cases the Ministry of Health cannot reach".

"In written responses to questions from my office, the Health Minister revealed his ministry doesn't have this information to hand, raising serious questions about the government's readiness for level 3," he said.

"If Kiwis are to have confidence that we're ready to come out of level 4 then the government needs to be able to clearly state how long the average contact tracing time is and how many people they have failed to trace.

"It begs the question, why don't we have a contact-tracing app in this country yet when Australia now has one and many Asian countries have been using them for some time."

High level contact tracing is one of the measures needed for New Zealand to move to alert level 3.

Woodhouse said there was nothing to confirm the capacity to identify 80 percent of close contacts of someone infected with Covid-19 within three days.

"The information not only isn't being released but the minister, in response to written questions says it's not being collected in a manner that would be able to give us that confidence."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Morning Report contact tracing had been brought up to a good standard.

"We've been in a position where we've had low numbers that we've needed to contact trace because our cases have been low and also that because we've been in lockdown the number of close contacts have been small.

"But in the period of the last couple of weeks we've been looking at the pace of contact tracing. We've got them up to the levels that [epidemiologist] Ayesha Verrall suggested that should be the goal for us," she said.

"From 13 to 17 April approximately 80 percent of close contacts in that time were traced within 48 hours of the case being notified to the unit. That hasn't been an issue."

Ardern said the biggest delay at the moment was people getting tested as soon as they were symptomatic and urged anyone with symptoms to contact health authorities straight away.

Ardern yesterday said she remained sceptical about what the contact tracing app would achieve because it required very high uptake.

"Our big focus has been on getting our in-person contact tracing right because that is what we will all be relying on ... places like Singapore, the uptake there has been under 20 percent," she said.

"My view is we cannot rely on this and we can't place all our eggs in one basket."

Australia launched its COVIDSafe app on Sunday, and within hours more than one million people had downloaded it.

The Australian app warns users if they have more than 15 minutes of close contact with someone who tests positive.

An audit of New Zealand's contact tracing capabilities by epidemiologist Dr Ayesha Verrall found the country's capacity needed to be increased three- or four-fold as long as the virus remained a health threat.

Dr Verrall said the ministry urgently needed to work on an app to help with contact tracing.

The ministry has been consulting on contact tracing with the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), New Zealand's communications spy agency, amid growing concern globally that contact tracing could lead to mass surveillance.

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