'You're the problem' — Government's 'scan, scan, scan' mantra comes under fire for blaming community

Breanna Barraclough
Source: 1News

The Government's campaign to increase the use of the Covid Tracer app by blaming the public for potential outbreaks could be doing more harm than good, an expert says. 

A generic image of a Covid Tracer QR code poster.

"There seems to be a tone of exasperation and helplessness [from authorities] at this stage," Radhika Reddy told 1 NEWS.

"Like, 'Hey users, you're the problem. You're complacent and you just need to be better.'"

Reddy is a software developer specialising in behavioural design. 

She says the Government's call to "scan, scan, scan" ignores the fact scanning a QR code is actually a multi-step process — thereby not helping people develop the habit.

To actually increase use of the app, Reddy says the messaging needs to change, saying there's a "range of things we could argue are wrong".

"[There's] the failure to give specific instructions on how not just use the software, but how to make it part of your advice."

The message of "scan, scan, scan" is really a multi-step process, Reddy says.

Look for a QR code

Stop, take a moment to take out your phone and load the app

Scan the QR code in the Covid Tracer app.

"There's other reasons why people might be distracted or overloaded, or stress for whatever reason... and so they might not end up doing the conscious work of deciding to scan at every occasion," Reddy says.

"But if they've coached themselves into this habit of associating the cue with the response — the QR code poster triggers them to take out their phone almost unconsciously and just do it in a couple of seconds.

"Rephrase the words rather than saying, 'Hey folks, don't be complacent and scan scan scan,' switch that around to say, 'Look at the QR codes, take action, give yourself positive reinforcement.'"


Since before summer, there's been a consistent cry from the Ministry of Health and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield: "Scan, scan, scan."

Shortly before Christmas, Bloomfield said Kiwis needed to "get with the programme" to ensure the country would remain at Alert Level 1 over Christmas.

But recent community cases have been linked back to the border — a woman who caught the virus from a MIF-working NZ Defence Force staffer and now, three people who apparently caught the virus while at the Pullman Hotel isolation facility after their final test before departure.

Bloomfield again highlighted the Covid Tracer app when releasing details about the new Northland case, praising her use as "assiduous". 

As part of the $2.5 million 'Make Summer Unstoppable' campaign, one advert shows a woman sneezing and a party coming to a halt, to which a man replies, "I think you've just stopped summer."

It's a marked contrast to Bloomfield's other public messaging, where he's said : "There is no blame or shame in having Covid-19. The virus is the problem, not the people, they did not ask to catch it... people are the solution."

Despite the campaign, app usage has remained low this summer, according to figures released by the Ministry of Health.

Around one QR code or diary entry was carried out for every five users on the app, per day, on average.

Now it's surged to more than a million scans a day - but that's still the equivalent of just one scan each day for every two users.

"[The app] is not a silver bullet to protect against pandemic, but it's one more layer of defence and the more confidence we have in the system," Reddy says. 

"This is one bit that we as individual users have a chance to contribute to, is our chance to pitch into that collective effort."

Communications around the Covid Tracer app are "fragmented and scattered", Reddy says, often not demonstrating the actual process for scanning but assuming people know how to use it already.

"I think the public messaging is kind of stopping at the point that, 'Hey, this is the app we're delivering to you and you're stuck with this. And now you have to be less complacent about it,'" Reddy says.


When contacted by 1 NEWS, the Ministry of Health's Shayne Hunter, deputy director-general of digital and data, said they welcome feedback on the app, QR codes and messaging and "have had constructive dialogue with some experts who have given us feedback directly".

"The NZ Covid Tracer is one way we’ve tried to make it easier for people to record their visits and we’d like to acknowledge those who are routinely scanning and using the NZ Covid Tracer app," he says.

Some changes have already been made to the app due to feedback from users, Hunter says, such as the Bluetooth tracing function and adding details of community testing centres.

Further updates to improve the app are planned in the coming months, Hunter says.

Addressing concerns around the messaging from authorities, Hunter said it's "already evolving".

"And we’re making best efforts to explain the reason for scanning and the value of the NZ Covid Tracer app in speeding up contact tracing."

After initial inquiries from 1 NEWS, there's already been a slight change. 

Earlier this week, Bloomfield demonstrated how to activate the Bluetooth tracing on the Covid Tracer app during the 1pm press conference, rather than previous days where the message has simply been to "activate Bluetooth". 

At yesterday's routine update, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said he'd had increasing reports of businesses not displaying QR codes prominently and people forgetting to scan as a result.

"My message to all businesses is please continue to play your part here. Make sure you have it prominently displayed, preferably put up multiple copies of it," he says.

"The other reminder I'd say to people is hand on heart, I've made the same mistake myself, if you forget to scan on the way in, scan on the way out."

The app works in two ways. 

By turning on Bluetooth, it's able to exchange data with others to log when you've come into contact with particular people — giving the ability to trace who you've been in contact with.

Meanwhile, the QR codes and manual diary entries log where you've been and at what times, allowing authorities to identify casual contacts and the locations you've been at.

When contacted by 1 NEWS, the ministry declined to respond to questions about whether the Ministry of Health felt the present level of scanning was acceptable, whether any further campaigns were planned to encourage increased scanning, or respond to concerns the current messaging placed the blame on the general public for any potential outbreaks.