Entrepreneur Sam Morgan has a new idea to help contain Covid-19 - and he says the Ministry of Health could roll it out within days if it chooses.
The txt-based Daily Health Check service would send a message to everyone's phones - in the manner of the Civil Defence texts sent on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, only with two-way capability so simple questions could be asked.
There would be a couple of quick questions on first-use (on age, location and pre-existing conditions), then one about feeling any Covid-like symptoms (watch a demo here).
The idea, is once you're registered, your Daily Health Check takes less than 30 seconds.
Morgan sees it as a real-time way for the Government to establish where it should focus its resources, down to the postcode level, at a time when speed is of the essence to prevent runaway community transmission.
"If you've got wider transmission in the community, it could potentially provide you with some intelligence as to where people were becoming symptomatic over time," he says.
"If the country got into the habit of doing a daily health check-in, then it would enable the Government to say, 'This postcode here had no-one symptomatic last week, and this week they've got people popping up. And so that's where we want to put our test facilities.
"It would serve two purposes. One, to take a load off the Healthline, which is, again, 1000 people in front of your queue - or 890, last time I called it. It just doesn't scale.
"Two, it gives people the ability to find out 'Should I be tested?' and to really provide
a triage system in that regard."
Morgan says a similar Q&A capability could be built into the Government's NZ Covid Tracer app - but he again criticises the app's low adoption. Despite the Government's renewed PR push for the app, he doesn't see it every gaining wide adoption, especially among at-risk groups such as low-income families sharing a home.
Like his $20-a-piece Covid Card concept, he paints the txt-based Daily Health Check as a simple solution that can be used by everyone, no fancy phones required.
Daily Health Check has been available through WhatsApp since April 21, but it needs a Government agency driving it for mass adoption.
The main impediment would be the cost of all the txt messages. "If you send five messages at 20c each to every Aucklander, you're quickly at $5 million in service charges."
But he sees a will at Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees to zero-rate the service - "if someone at the Ministry of Health is willing to have those conversations, but that takes some initiative".
Morgan says Daily Health Check is "All built. It could be rolled out in days."
Has he talked to the Ministry of Health about it?
"They're very aware of it. They're very across it. They just like doing their own stuff," he says.
A spokesman for the ministry responded, "The daily health check-in was developed by the Ministry as part of a WhatsApp channel launched on 2 April 2020, as another platform to keep New Zealanders informed."
The system was decommissioned on May 30 when New Zealanders started engaging less with the communication channels, the spokesman said.
"However, the daily health check-in is being actively considered for a future update to the NZ Covid Tracer app. The Ministry had considered including the function earlier but decided to concentrate in the first instance on major functionality such as the ability to manually add locations and the exposure alert, which is critical to contact tracing.
Rotorua trial a 'sop'
Morgan sees the Daily Health Check txts as complementary to his Covid Card concept.
To quickly recap, the Covid Card would be worn on a lanyard around your neck, and use Bluetooth technology to record your close contacts with other wearers - which could then be downloaded by a health professional in the event you become infected, so those you've in proximity with can be alerted.
While some phone-based apps have Bluetooth tracing (NZ Covid Tracer doesn't, but might have the feature added), different Bluetooth standards used by different makes and models of phones has proved problematic where it's been deployed overseas. Ditto some phones' habit of pushing apps to the background, or turning off Bluetooth when the battery is low.
Team Morgan ran a successful trial at Nelson Hospital earlier this year.
Is he pleased the Government has now announced its own Covid Card trial, in Rotorua, to be run by Otago University and involving 250 to 300 locals?
"Not really. Thanks a political sop. They're not testing the technology. What they're testing is how politically acceptable it is," Morgan says.
He says a trial requires normalised social conditions, which we no longer have with level 2 and level 3 restrictions in place.
"And you can't just wait for the ideal social settings to run your trial between lockdowns; it's just not a good way to run a technology project you have to deliver it.
"Fundamentally, at some point, someone just has to decide to do it."
He says the Rotorua trial is about the Government not wanting to appear as if it has closed the door on any solution before the election.
"So, yeah, they [the Ministry of Health] still haven't made a decision to do it, and we don't see any will to do it," Morgan says.
"So we've sort of stood down from the whole thing. We're kind of like, 'Well you guys go and do whatever you want. It's clear you don't want to do it. If you do get serious, give us a call."