Michael Baker says NZ's contact tracing system needs to be mandatory in wake of Melbourne Covid outbreak

Source: 1News

Epidemiologist, Professor Michael Baker says New Zealand’s contact tracing system needs to become mandatory in high-risk environments as figures show those using the Covid-19 app have dropped dramatically.

Alarm bells are ringing after Singapore admitted data from its app can be accessed by police with a warrant.

In mid-February this year, amid the Auckland lockdown, Kiwis scanning in was at an all-time high with 1, 854,901 scans recorded.

But with no cases of Covid-19 in the community, the habit has dwindled , with only 574,894 scans recorded on May 26.

It comes as the Australian state of Victoria is on day one of a snap lockdown after 30 cases of the virus were found in the community.

Lockdowns are more likely if contact tracers have no data to work with. Baker told 1 NEWS low numbers of people in New Zealand using the Covid-19 Tracer app are discouraging.

“We basically know that the uptake of voluntary scanning with the QR codes is very low and erratic,” he says. But the uptake of people downloading the app is high, which is encouraging.

“We need to have a system where it’s mandatory to scan in - which is used in parts of Australia to scan in to high-risk indoor environments,” he says.

The epidemiologist said returnees from red zones is New Zealand's biggest risk in the fight against Covid-19 currently.

“It needs to be a requirement in indoor music venues, bars, nightclubs and places of worship where people are jammed together with less ventilation.

“What we know about the virus is that it loves proximity and indoor environments that have poor ventilation.

“They are the places we want to have maximum contact tracing effectiveness.”

Baker says now is the time to put mandatory scanning in place so that if an outbreak occurs, tracers will be able to find data quickly.

“Even where there isn’t an outbreak, we would still have a core of people scanning into those places. It would mean more people downloading the app and it would be much easier to contact trace if an outbreak were to eventuate.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health told 1 NEWS the Covid Tracer app will be getting some improvements.

"We commissioned some behavioural research late last year and we’ve implemented some of the recommendations, and discussing other recommendations with our colleagues who manage the Unite Against Covid-19 website and campaigns.

"The research findings are informing our upcoming improvements to the NZ Covid Tracer app, messaging, and campaigns. We are also going to use feedback we have had from other experts that we have communicated with," the spokesperson said. 

"Since the NZ Covid Tracer App was introduced, it has not been unusual to see ebbs and flows of usage in line with a change in alert levels and case numbers. Currently at alert level 1, we strongly encourage New Zealanders and visitors to New Zealand not to be complacent and continue to keep a record of their movements."

The ministry spokesperson said scanning needs to become a daily habit for Kiwis. 

"It's important to encourage people to develop the habit to record where they have been – we want this to become part of everyone’s normal day activities."

A Melbourne cardiac nurse 1 NEWS spoke to says in the past week, businesses have been more stringent about scanning.

“I think scanning wasn’t adequate beforehand but now with this outbreak people are finally realising that contact tracing is necessary to get on top of things quickly,” says Elissa Liggins.

“Prior to the latest outbreak it almost felt optional to scan in but I went to a café this week and they wouldn’t actually serve me until I’d shown them that I’d scanned in.

“It’s a shame that it’s taken another outbreak for people to realise the importance of checking in.” says Liggins, adding that she "scans in everywhere". 

“I think there’s still a portion of the population who don’t grasp the extent of this virus. They underestimate it.

“It has highlighted to us all how important that tracking is and how easily contact tracers can communicate with potentially exposed people if QR codes have been used.”

The New Zealand Ministry of Health says the NZ Covid Tracer app now has 2,833,850 registered users.

Poster scans have now reached 275,144,400 and users have created 10,330,503 manual diary entries.