Sunday, September 5, 2021

Bronwyn Howell: Compulsory contact-tracing apps - the case of New Zealand

First published HERE by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based public policy think tank, on August 25, 2021.

New Zealand, under the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, has received considerable international kudos for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

With an elimination strategy best articulated as “zero tolerance of community transmission,” the country to date has exhibited one of the world’s lowest infection and death rates. 

By August 22, it had recorded 24 deaths (0.48 per 100,000 people) — notably few compared to the United States’ 628,503 deaths (191.5 per 100,000 people). Even the best-performing US state in this statistic, Hawaii (to which New Zealand, as a small Pacific nation, could be comparable), has a death rate of 39 per 100,000 people.

The core of New Zealand’s COVID-19 strategy is twofold.

First is a draconian border closure where entry is strictly controlled. 
Only New Zealand citizens and permanent residence visa holders have an automatic right of entry, and all entrants must produce a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test within three days of travel to the country, isolate in a government-controlled facility for 14 days on arrival, and produce negative PCR tests regularly throughout. Quarantine spots are limited, must be prebooked, cost NZD 3100 per individual (with discounts for those sharing a room), and are currently booked until November 2021. When new quarantine spots are released, they are booked within minutes, largely because of a vibrant market of “bots” programmed to detect new openings quickly and alert prospective applicants.

Second is zero tolerance whenever the virus is detected within the country. All people presenting a positive test are moved immediately to a government-controlled quarantine facility. This includes cases detected both at the border and in the community. When community transmission is detected, strict lockdowns are actioned. Thus, when a single case of the delta COVID-19 variant was detected in Auckland last week, the country was immediately placed in its most severe form of lockdown — “Alert Level 4” — in which the entire population must isolate at home, and only a handful of “essential services” are allowed to operate. The current Alert Level 4 lockdown is one of the strictest under the Oxford Stringency Index (85.19 out of 100). This lockdown strategy is described by Ardern as “go hard, go early” in order to stamp the virus out. The extensive controls were deemed necessary as the delta variant is highly contagious and will be much easier to “stamp out” if people stay in one place to enable government contact tracers to find and test all known contacts of those carrying the virus.

Effective contact tracing is vital if the zero-tolerance policy is to succeed. While human control of the process is essential, its effectiveness can be enhanced by the use of smartphone-based tracing apps. QR code–based NZ COVID Tracer was introduced in May 2020 as an opt-in tool to help contact tracers locate and alert potential contacts of exposure to a positive case and instruct them on how to proceed. Users are requested to scan QR codes when entering premises and public transport vehicles displaying them. Voluntary scanning activity has been extremely disappointing, even during periods of active community transmission, with fewer than one scan per day being recorded per active app, despite apps having been downloaded by over 50 percent of the adult population.

Hence, two days ago, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced the government will make using NZ COVID Tracer (or other electronic and paper-based record keeping) mandatory at a wide range of venues at all COVID-19 alert levels. It is currently a requirement for records to be kept by employers and a limited number of private functions at Alert Level 2 and above and all businesses and public transport operators are required to display QR codes. But once the government’s intention is enacted, premises operators and function hosts will be responsible for ensuring individuals comply with the requirement to participate in contact tracing and share whatever information is deemed necessary to enable quicker contact tracing.

New Zealand’s move in making QR code scanning mandatory is unprecedented in a Western democratic economy. Smartphone tracing apps have been grudgingly accepted in these contexts because their use has been voluntary. However, the objective of New Zealand’s rules — to oblige an entire population to document its movements to facilitate government processes — is surely an infringement on personal human rights to privacy that warrants detailed discussion and debate before implementation. However, it appears unlikely this will occur, as the Ardern government has an overwhelming majority in a state with a unicameral parliament, which Ardern has suspended during the current lockdown. To be effective, the mandate must be in place when interaction resumes, so haste prevails.

Americans may grumble about elements of their political system, but at times like this, the ability to question and debate such important issues and, if necessary, put brakes on lawmaking processes is precious.

Dr Bronwyn Howell is a programme director at the School of Management at Victoria University and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. 


Anonymous said...

Two brief comments!
At present 37 covid patients in Hospital but 37,000 operations, some of these life threatening, either canceled or deferred.

Mandatory QR How do authorities know whether I've 'checked in' at every place visited?
Will it be an honesty response?
Or will it be policed everywhere?

Anonymous said...

Mandatory QR posting?? The system is so unreliable. It is easy to stand there and appear to scan the code. Reflections and distance (among other things) affect the wretched things. I have had rude business owners demand that I scan the code. I take that as an indication they do not want my business - easy to move elsewhere. Others have politely asked I scan in.
None has checked that the scan actually activated.