David Seymour rubbishes NZ COVID Tracer App over no record of how close contacts are traced

ACT leader David Seymour is rubbishing the NZ COVID Tracer App after Health Minister Chris Hipkins confirmed there is no record of how close contacts are traced.

The Ministry of Health's contact tracing team has so far identified 2446 close contacts of COVID-19 cases in New Zealand, and Seymour asked Hipkins in Parliament how many of those contacts were identified from the app.

Hipkins said public health units "do not specifically record how they've identified the close contacts", but he said he has been advised that the app is being used to help find the up-to-date contact details for close contact follow-up.

"It is in the case investigators' operating procedure to request the digital diary of a case, where they have one," Hipkins said. 

"The work and expertise of the public health units and the National Close Contact Service remain the mainstays of our contact tracing system, and I have confidence in the effectiveness of their work," he added.

"The COVID Tracer app helps people to record where they've been and can be used to notify potential contacts of exposure to COVID-19."

The Ministry of Health app allows you to create a digital diary of places you visit by scanning the official QR codes, which the Government says helps contact tracers to quickly identify and isolate anyone who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

But Seymour is questioning how the Government can be sure the app is useful if there is no record of how many people have been traced using it.

ACT leader David Seymour is rubbishing the NZ COVID Tracer App.
ACT leader David Seymour is rubbishing the NZ COVID Tracer App. Photo credit: Parliament TV

Hipkins said the better the records people have of their movements, the faster the contact tracing team can get in contact with everyone they have been in contact with.

"I'd also point out that one of the things that we have been very clear about is that by registering for the COVID Tracer App, the Ministry of Health gets people's up-to-date contact information, and that's actually one of the most important steps in the process," he said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made it mandatory for all businesses under the alert levels to display the COVID Tracer App QR code at entry points, and Seymour asked Hipkins why it wasn't made mandatory earlier.

Newshub revealed last month that the Government considered making it mandatory 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 at alert level 1.  

Hipkins said in the early days after the first lockdown there were a number of different tracing apps that were being used and the Government has been working to improve the quality of its app to have one standard system. 

Health Minister CHris Hipkins says the NZ COVID Tracer App helps contact tracing teams get up-to-date contact details.
Health Minister CHris Hipkins says the NZ COVID Tracer App helps contact tracing teams get up-to-date contact details. Photo credit: Parliament TV

"One of the things that we've been working through is making sure that businesses only need to display one QR code, even if people are using a different tracer app, and that has involved working with other providers of tracer apps to make sure that the QR codes that we supply can be the one and only code that businesses need to display," he said.

"We were able to conclude that work, and, actually, businesses have welcomed that because it means less compliance for them and the need to display multiple codes is reduced."

Seymour thinks the app has been a "failure" because the Government is unable to say whether any contacts have been traced by using it.

"It's deeply concerning that we have no measurement of the effectiveness of the app in finding close contacts. We can almost guarantee the answer is none," he said. "It's not surprising that we don't get any matches from the COVID App."

There are now more than 1.8 million people registered to the app which is about the population of Auckland. There have been more than a million QR scans every day for the past seven days, and 318,278 codes have been created.

The Government is now trialling CovidCard technology in managed isolation facilities, devices designed to be worn on a lanyard that can detect and record close contacts using Bluetooth.