COVID-19 document dump: Government considered mandatory QR codes with up to six months in prison for defiance

The Government considered forcing businesses to use QR codes with up to six months in prison or $4000 fines for non-compliance - but there were enforcement implications and officials said it could not be justified. 

A plethora of documents have been dumped by the Government about its COVID-19 response, and in a paper from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, it says the Government "explored" the prospect of mandatory QR codes. 

"There is a choice to be made between making it a legal requirement, backed by enforcement, and a voluntary approach, working with businesses, hospitality firms, churches, schools and others to encourage QR code display," the paper says. 

It said more widespread display of QR codes would help individuals to keep a record of where they have been - but officials did "not think that it is appropriate to require entities or individuals to keep records directly at level 1". 

The Government paper says forcing businesses to display QR codes "could not be justified" by the level of public health risk posed by COVID-19. 

"But if more businesses and other organisations were to display Government-issued QR codes, this could assist people without imposing a direct requirement to keep a record," the paper said. 

"My recommendation is to take a voluntary approach at this time, but with the knowledge that the option to make it a legal requirement is available if required."

A legal requirement for displaying QR codes would have been enforceable under the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act 2020, and non-compliance would have been subject to penalties of up to six months in prison or a $4000 fine. 

Officials advised the Government that, if mandatory QR codes were to be introduced, businesses should get two weeks to allow time for the Ministry of Health to put in place a new self-service process. 

The Government said there would be challenges for enforcement of a mandatory approach because officials recommend an exemption for organisations where obtaining a QR code was not reasonably necessary or practical.

"This would make it difficult to know if an organisation not displaying a code is non-compliant or exempt."

The Government also raised implications about it being unfair on businesses. 

"A mandatory requirement would need to cover retail outlets. It might seem discordant that retailers would face enforceable requirements to support contact tracing at alert level 1 when they did not at level 2."

Health Minister Chris Hipkins earlier this month did not rule out forcing businesses to provide QR codes for the COVID Tracer App because the number of scans to date is "not enough" to contact trace if a new outbreak emerged. 

"We can't be complacent and we do need to be prepared if new cases of COVID-19 were to emerge in our community," he told reporters on July 15. 

"If that was to happen tomorrow, based on the number of poster scans we are seeing, not enough New Zealanders would be able to remember their movements for us to efficiently trace who has been exposed to the virus."

Hipkins was asked if he would rule out mandatory QR codes. 

"I wouldn't rule that out. Obviously we're going to be considering a range of different options. I haven't had that advice yet. If we'd been able to get it out earlier that would have been helpful."

The Government's NZ COVID Tracer has to date recorded 621,400 registered users. There have been 82,287 posters created and 1.6 million scans of the QR codes. 

The Ministry of Health has released an update to the app allowing users to record visits to places that don't have a QR code, such as a friend's house.