Coronavirus: Expert rubbishes ACT's COVID Tracer app lottery idea as 'not that helpful'

An expert has rubbished the ACT Party's proposal to offer cash incentives to use the COVID Tracer app, because encouraging people to get out and about during a lockdown "is probably not that helpful". 

The app, launched in May last year, has struggled to find widespread usage amongst Kiwis. Use tends to spike when there's a case - such as in February - but almost disappears in between outbreaks, despite fast contact tracing being key to preventing the need for lockdowns.

The Government on Sunday said using the app - or some other form of record-keeping - would now be mandatory at high-risk locations and events, with venues and organisers tasked with enforcement. 

ACT leader David Seymour says businesses "have been through enough with multiple lockdowns, as well as a raft of other costs placed on them by Government - like another public holiday and a raise in the minimum wage" and the onus should be up to individuals to scan. 

"It’s time to think out of the box about how to encourage more people to use the app," he said on Sunday, suggesting a lottery. 

"Instead of getting pinged to isolate, you might get pinged that you’ve won $1000."

He's suggesting every week, 100 Kiwis who've used the Tracer app should win $1000. Every time a person scans would be another entry in the draw - even if they hadn't gone anywhere else. 

"Some people might try to record their location more often than they need to just to win the prize, great, it will be easier to trace their location if they are infected," said Seymour. 

Andrew Chen, a research fellow in Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland who has been studying usage of the Tracer app, says incentives do work. 

"Studies overseas have shown that even a small incentive - like a couple of dollars - can cause people to be more likely to participate and use the app," he told Newshub - though once the incentive goes away, so does the behaviour. 

"If we want to use incentives, we're going to have to keep those incentives going for a very long time." 

But it has a serious flaw, he says.

"One of the challenges with having incentives is it can encourage people to move more than they otherwise would have. In the context of an infectious disease, this is probably not that helpful," Dr Chen explained.

"Imagine if one of the cases in the current outbreak had visited 25 places instead of 10, how many more people might have become contacts... we need to design any incentives really, really carefully." 

It also excludes people who can't use the Tracer app for valid reasons, Dr Chen said - for example people who don't have a phone that can run the app. 

Instead, he said retailers could offer discounts to people who use the app or other forms of record-keeping. 

"Any incentive system that encourages people to scan more individual places in order to get more rewards or more likelihood of reward - ie. one scan is one entry - is probably going to be problematic because it will incentivise excess mobility. 

"An incentive that actually requires the person to consume the services at the venue is probably more manageable - for example if a cafe offers a 5 percent discount for showing that you used the app or done a manual sign-in, that requires the person to actually go to the cafe and have the meal. That is going to be less problematic than a situation where people might just be wandering around scanning random QR codes because they think it will get them more rewards." 

He said making the app compulsory is the strongest motivator, overseas experience has shown, but the Government could also do a better job of making its benefits clear to Kiwis. 

"People are motivated by perception of risk and perception of effectiveness. Perception of risk is going to go up and down as we hear and see more cases of COVID in the community... but the other thing the Government could be doing is emphasising a lot more the stories of success related to digital contact tracing."

David Seymour.
David Seymour. Photo credit: Newshub.

In the past some cases of COVID-19 have been quickly linked to the border, giving authorities confidence there isn't a wider outbreak and reducing the need for lockdowns. Digital contact tracing speeds up this process, as well as getting more potentially exposed people into isolation via notifications through the app. 

The Tracer app also has Bluetooth functionality, which keeps a track of others you've been close to who also have Bluetooth turned on.

Dr Chen said while making use of that mandatory would "be a good idea for containing the spread of the disease", Google and Apple wouldn't allow it - and the app would likely get removed from the phone operators' stores, meaning no one could use it all.