Government's NZ COVID-19 Tracer app labelled 'pointless' by Opposition

The Ministry of Health is "encouraged" by the number of Kiwis who have downloaded the Government's COVID-19 tracing app, but the Opposition has labelled it "pointless". 

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said on Thursday the Ministry of Health has recorded 240,000 registrations of the NZ COVID Tracer app so far to help to identify, trace and isolate new cases. 

But National health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse says the app doesn't fulfil its purpose because it is not a substitute for signing a contact tracing register at a restaurant, which he said the Prime Minister billed it as. 

"The Prime Minister teased the contact tracing app as an alternative to giving your details to a business, but the Ministry of Health has admitted it is not a substitute for signing a contact tracing register at a restaurant," Woodhouse said. 

Ardern said on May 18 some people "don't want to fill in a paper-based form that will sit in a public place" and that the app would mean people could "keep the data for themselves rather than adding it into any more broader repository that might be held by a business".

But with the exception of retail outlets, businesses have to "record details of all people's movement on their premises, including staff, customers and visitors" according to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Woodhouse said the risk now is that businesses "believe the app is a replacement for keeping a contact tracing register, only to be pulled up by the ministry when they don't have one". 

The app effectively records where you have been so the Ministry of Health contact tracing team can find out if you have potentially been in contact with someone who has COVID-19.

The Singaporean and Australian apps use Bluetooth to detect who you have been in contact with - as long as they also have the app. Ardern signalled in March that New Zealand would adopt something similar. 

But at the time Ardern first spoke about a potential contact tracing app for New Zealand, she said they "don't solve everything" and that what's most important is "good people" working on contact tracing. 

The app, launched on Wednesday, creates a sort of 'digital diary' of the places Kiwis visit by scanning QR codes displayed at the entrances to various places. Any information you decide to record with the app will be stored securely on your phone and deleted automatically after 31 days for privacy reasons. 

It's also your choice whether you share any of the information with contact tracers, and any information you do share will be used only for public health purposes and never for enforcement, the Ministry of Health said. 

Auckland University Professor Dave Parry said the advantage of the New Zealand app is that it supplies exactly the information needed by the contact tracing team and won't add lots of other information about potentially non-significant contacts. 

It also doesn't depend on everyone using it, unlike the Bluetooth approach, and it should use less power, because Bluetooth can drain a phone's battery life. 

But it does depend on people checking in accurately, he said, and that although most people will be happy doing that, "the onus is on you to remember to do it". 

He also reflected Woodhouse's concern that it doesn't replace the check-in systems to businesses or even allow you to automatically send your history to the contact tracing team, although that is said to be coming soon. 

"I found the interface to set it up rather clunky and I suspect a lot of people will give up," Prof Parry said. "It also asks for a lot of information (admittedly voluntary) that it doesn't need. 

"People are used to very easy-to-use apps, and for something designed to be used by the whole population this feels like a Government app. Not impossible to use, but not delightful either."

Woodhouse said the Government has "clearly rushed out an app at the taxpayers' expense" that doesn't live up to what was initially promised. 

But the Ministry of Health said the app will be updated in June to be able to notify you if you have been at the same location at the same time as someone who has COVID-19, and allow you to send information directly to contact tracers. 

The app is available now from the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store. 

Businesses and other organisations can generate QR code posters through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Dr Bloomfield said some New Zealanders were having trouble locating the app in the Google Play Store, so the ministry has worked with Google to ensure the app can be found more easily.