Sam Morgan has sent his CovidCard team packing, despite the Government gearing up to trial the technology in Rotorua.
"The CovidCard Team - the private sector people - have all stood down from any involvement because we see no pathway to success in the way this is being done," the Trade Me founder told the Herald.
Morgan says his now-disbanded team - which designed and developed the CovidCard, and oversaw a successful field trial at Nelson Hospital - included Navman founder Sir Peter Maire, former Air New Zealand and Xero CTO Alistair Grigg, and Otago University epidemiologists Tim Chambers and Andy Anglemyer.
Virscient's Dean Armstrong was the technology lead, while Clearpoint's Bain Hollister was in charge of the software platform, Kirikowhai Mikaere was the team's iwi liaison, and former Vend chief executive Alex Fala its Pasifika point-man.
The private CovidCard team forwarded hundreds of pages of technical information to the MoH after the Nelson trial in May. It was standing by ready to assist. But nothing happened. And Morgan has become frustrated in the months since.
"There is no capability or commitment within the Ministry of Health to do it," he added.
"There is, in fact, active resistance and has been since we began."
Ministry of Health responds
Communications Minister Kris Faafoi directed questions about the CovidCard trial to the Ministry of Health.
An MoH spokesman told the Herald: "The CovidCard trial is currently partway through the design phase. We expect to complete the trial around the end of September, with a report to Cabinet by the end of October. Work to date has included engaging with community leaders, iwi, public health units, the Department of Internal Affairs, MBIE, NZ Contact Tracing, as well as a wider team of people covering technology, policy, legal, data, market research and other key elements of the work.
"The ministry will be working with community leaders and iwi over coming days to discuss the design of the trial and options for selecting participants.
"The Rotorua trial will help us determine whether the CovidCard works in a real-world scenario and will also allow us to test public sentiment.
"We expect a decision on whether to deploy the CovidCard more widely will be made before the end of the year.
The CovidCard has the potential to complement our existing contact tracing process and the NZ Covid Tracer app as another tool in the toolbox to help us quickly stamp out any resurgence of the virus whenever it appears in our community."
"Several additional staff have been brought on board to coordinate the trial."
Morgan, who sees the Covid Card replacing an app and having 80 per cent plus adoption for effectiveness, responded, "There is no chance they can deliver even a trial in the timeframe they've given.
"While directives can be given from above by ministers, you need capable and committed people in the layers below who believe it can be done."
Morgan only has a good word for one health insider, Nelson Marlborough DHB chief executive Dr Peter Bramley, who he says was "very helpful" with the hospital trial in May.
More broadly, the tech entrepreneur's take is that MoH middle managers are sending the CovidCard nowhere.
"Unless they stand up a dedicated and well-led technology group with a mandate to do this, it will never go anywhere. You can't just put a dozen mid-level Government project managers and comms people on this and have it happen. You need actual technology people, well-led, with a mandate. Senior people need to engage," Morgan said.
"This is just another thing ministers say is happening but it is not."
He added, "Deployment to managed isolation facilities might yet be possible because MoH are not involved - that is being driven out of MBIE under Minister Megan Woods."
Morgan says the MoH is "committing to a path of the Apple-Google Exposure API".
Like the CovidCard, which is branded "Ko" and designed to be worn around the neck on a lanyard for easy transmission, the Apple-Google solution uses Bluetooth - in its case from your iPhone or Android - to automatically record close contacts.
Morgan and CovidCard boosters like Ian Taylor think some form of automatic recording of close contacts that last several minutes is necessary because people forget - or are simply unaware - of many of their interactions from two or three weeks ago. An automated process is much faster, too.
They see the CovidCard - which is budgeted at around $100m (or around $20 per person) for its first year, after a five-month rollout - as the only practical solution for Bluetooth tracking given the various makes and models of phone, differing standards and signal strengths, and many simply not downloading an app or using it properly have hampered Bluetooth-based smartphone efforts overseas.
(Read more on the arguments for and against a card here.)
"The false-positive rates and false negatives are massive with the Apple-Google system. The software is easy, but it doesn't work or get the necessary adoption. MoH will, true to form, not conduct field trials to determine efficacy or do the modelling work to show how it can impact on the virus - it is all a smokescreen and not being conducted with any rigour. New Zealanders might start getting Google notifications out of the blue telling them to self isolate without good reason. "
The Apple-Google solution does have its fans in NZ, including Otago public health professor Nick Wilson, who sees it as part of an overall, multi-piece contact-tracing plan that also includes a CovidCard, manual tracking and use of movement data provided by telcos.
Taylor and Wilson have fretted that manual tracing - currently geared to handle 350 cases a day, with surge capacity for 500 - will get overwhelmed with a large outbreak, hence the need for automated tracing such as a CovidCard.
"The Ministry of Health simply considers that once a point of scale limitation is reached they will just do a level 4 lockdown - tyranny of experts," Morgan says.
Having given up hope on the CovidCard, Morgan is now putting his efforts into a txt-based system, which would poll New Zealanders en-masse about the state of their health - the better to target the locations for testing.
But here, again, he's butting heads with the MoH.
A spokesman said the ministry is assessing whether to add such a capability to the NZ Covid Tracer app, but Morgan sees it as essential that it's simple and txt-based for maximum reach - in the way those emergency alerts that reach nearly every phone, but with two-way capability.
"Two to go"
As he has since March, Morgan considers things will have to get worse before Kiwis come around to his team's way of thinking.
"We've always thought it will take three or four lockdowns before it sinks in that our current approach is economically, politically and socially unsustainable," he says.
"Two more to go."