Let me start this by saying I am in total agreement with Health Minister Chris Hipkins when he says the contact tracing team is the key to tracking this virus and getting us out of any lockdown we may be in. They are the superheroes in this battle, and we are seeing that once again in this current lockdown.
But what if we were to give these superheroes a new tool - a new weapon to help them in their battle, one that could also move us out of lockdown faster, or even prevent us from having to go into them at all. It's been estimated that this current lockdown could cost the country between $2-3 billion. In Auckland, the cost is $400 million – a week.
How many times can we afford to do that? Going in and out of lockdown, particularly at level 3 or 4, is simply unsustainable – socially or economically.
And we can be sure this won't be the last time our contract tracing team is at the front line of this battle – joined by all of the others who are out there today performing that other vital service – testing.
So, what is the battle that this team is fighting? I spoke with epidemiologist in voluntary liquidation Professor Michael Baker from Otago University who provided me with the following timeline for the person from a person in Auckland who tested positive this week. He's called the "index case."
Day One: He was infected - we don't know by whom or where.
Day Four: He became contagious - he was not showing any symptoms at that stage. He's asymptomatic.
Day Six-Eight: He starts showing symptoms, but he's already been spreading the virus for between two to four days.
And here's the scary bit - it was a further seven days before he managed to get a test, having been turned away twice before. That test was positive.
So that's around two weeks where the index case has potentially passed on the virus to anyone he has been in close contact with. Three members of his family were probably the first to catch it and they have been passing it on to their own close contacts for over a week - and the cycle continues to grow.
The contact tracing team has done a remarkable job in tracking the contacts to date. Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield pointed out that they had managed to trace 86 per cent of contacts within just 48 hours - and that is impressive. The work they have done over the past few days has been remarkable.
But there are numbers behind the numbers. The 86 per cent are the contacts the person remembered. Let's call those "remembered close contacts." But it has been a fortnight - what about the couple on the bus that he didn't know and hasn't remembered. As more cases are added, those "not remembered contacts" grow exponentially. And that is the challenge facing the contact tracing team. They have to take you through the process step by step to try and find those close contacts, including the ones you may not have remembered, or even known. And that takes time, which is one of the main reasons we are in lockdown.
So how could we make their job easier by using a technology that has been specifically designed to address their challenges and help level up the battle they are in.
Back in April I got a call from Sam Morgan. He had been thinking beyond the level 4 lockdown that we were in at the time. He was confident we would flatten the curve and come out of Level 4 - he was equally confident that the virus would be back, and the risk to the country was that we would be forced in and out of further damaging lockdowns until a vaccine was found.
His view was that this virus would move faster than we could, and unless we thought differently about how we handled it, it would continue to catch us when we least expected it. He had initially started working on an app-based solution, but it became clear very quickly that the limitations of that technology could not meet the objectives he believed were important.
1: The solution had to be free to everyone, and in particular it had to be available to the most vulnerable.
2: It had to protect people's privacy
3: It should not have to connect to the internet
4: It should not need any technical knowledge or expensive device
It turned out that there was nothing in the world that met all of those criteria so, with the help of others who shared his vision, he set about building a "Kiwi specific solution". The Covid Card.
For the past the months some of New Zealand's brightest minds have been contributing their time and resources to solving this problem. The result is the Covid Card aka The Paddle.
The Government has been delivered a full technical report on the Covid Card and the testing that has been undertaken to date. That can be shared in a different time and place but if the Government adheres to its policy of taking its advice from experts then I have noticed that at least two of the members of this team, Sam and Sir Peter Maire, are in New Zealand's Hi-Tech Hall of Fame. That's an honour bestowed on them by their industry as being world leaders and innovators. Experts. They should be listened to.
So, what might the situation look like today if the card had been deployed and everyone had come on board in support of it. What difference might this have made for our A Team at contact tracing.
As soon as the "index case" was identified all of the data from his card would have been uploaded directly to the contact tracing team. Within less than an hour they would have had the phone and email contacts for every "actual" close contact that he had made - remembered or not remembered. Because the contact details go back three weeks there is a very high chance that someone in those contacts was the person they are still trying to find - the person who passed the virus on to him in the first place.
In the first hour they would have also found the details of the two people who had gone to Tokoroa and those contacts would have received a notification asking them to self-isolate immediately until someone from the contact tracing team had contacted them and arranged for them to be tested.
They would also have been supplied all of the close contact details of the family members who had been to Taupo. That would include anyone they may have sat beside on the gondola that they didn't know, but who also had their Covid Card. All of this within the first hour or two of the positive test.
By comparison this is the timeline on Tuesday August 23 that the Government worked to - without the Covid Card information.
2:30 pm - Counties Manukau DHB is informed of the positive test.
2:40 pm - Dr Ashley Bloomfield is informed
4:00 pm - The Prime Minister is informed as she leaves a function in Whangarei.
5:30 pm - All of Govt Covid 19 response team is briefed.
7:30 pm - Health and All of Govt officials are briefed.
9:15 pm - PM announces that there are four new community transmission Covid cases in New Zealand. Auckland is to go into alert level 3 and the rest of New Zealand into alert level 2.
That's a total of almost seven hours where the only information that could be shared with us was that four people had tested positive in South Auckland.
How different might that announcement have been if, by the time the Prime Minister had left her public event in Whangarei at 4pm, the contact tracing team were able to inform her that they had identified every close contact for the past three weeks from the index case. By the time she briefed her officials at 7.30pm not only could they have established the parameter of the group, they may also have identified the person who gave it to the index case in the first place.
With that level of information would the decision still have been to put Auckland into level 3 or would they have decided that the best option was level 2 for three days for the whole country. The purpose of level 2 everywhere else would have been simply as a reminder that we are all in this together.
And that's where the Paddle comes in. He Waka Eke Noa - we are all in this boat together and the card you carry is your paddle. You are part of the crew of five million keeping our waka, Aotearoa, on track to beat this virus. Don't leave home without your paddle. Carry it with pride.
Covid Card techs and specs
The battery has been tested to run for up to 12 months based on 10 hours use per day. The card powers down when it isn't moving.
The reason for the lanyard is that there are technical constraints to low power blue tooth. The devices work best when they are in the open and can see each other. There are other ways they may be deployed for H&S reasons in factories, but we would work with organisations to ensure we got the best results. The higher the quality the data – the more reliable the results.
You would not have to wear it all of the time. Only when you were going into situations where you would be in close contacts with people, particularly those who were not from your normal circle of associates. You may only have to wear it for a couple of hours a day.
Business Environment. Think of this in a business like Mainfreight. They have thousands of employees – if one of them tests positive they may have to isolate an entire facility with hundreds of workers. If they are using the Paddle they would very quickly identify those who had close contact and only stand them down until they were tested.
The device itself is "dumb technology". All it does is record another card it has come into contact with, that is within a defined distance for a defined amount of time. It does not need to know where that card is – just that they became close contacts. It has a very simple job to do and that's the key here.
The $100 million price
That includes buying the cards and getting them out, for free, to every New Zealander. By comparison the cost of getting a piece of paper to every New Zealander for the Census in 2023 has been budgeted at $210m dollars. A $100m dollars gets a small computer to every Kiwi.
And then there is the cost to the economy. Every time we shut down to any level it is costly. The higher the level the higher the cost. This is designed to ensure we are in the lowest level possible for the shortest amount of time when we have our next case of community transmission.
At the moment the government is running a test in Rotorua to see how people respond to wearing the card, the Paddle. That is not the best use of our limited time and resources.
What we should be doing, at speed, is allowing Morgan and his team of experts to start working directly with the team on the frontline – the contact tracing team – to ensure that the card, the Paddle, performs at scale and does the job they need it to. If it does then all of us need to come on board – it's a small price to pay to keep us safe, our economy moving and our kids at school.
He Waka Eke Noa – we are all in this together.
• Ian Taylor, CNZM, is founder and managing director at Animation Research and the 2019 Kiwi Bank New Zealand Innovator of the Year.