The Ministry of Health has defended its contact-tracing track-record following scathing comments by Sam Morgan, and poured cold water - or at least luke-warm water - over the Trade Me founder's Covid Card proposal.
"While Bluetooth has the potential to detect and notify people who may have been in contact with Covid-19, as one of a number of technology solutions that contribute to effective contact tracing, the experience from other countries highlights that there are a number of technical challenges that would need to be overcome for it to be effective," an MoH spokesman told the Herald.
"These technical challenges apply whether Bluetooth is implemented within a smartphone or a card."
The spokesman also said the Ministry could work with the private sector, as evidenced by Rush Digital's work on its NZ Covid Tracer app.
Earlier, Morgan told the Herald that he, Navman founder Sir Peter Maire and others had delivered the Government hundreds of pages of technical information on a Covid Card - about the size of a credit card and three times as thick - designed to be worn around the neck on a lanyard.
The card would cost around $100 million (or about $20 per head fo the Team of Five Million) for a five-month rollout and its first year of operation, Morgan said.
The card uses Bluetooth to record close interactions with other card carriers. If someone becomes infected, a health work downloads data from that person's card to ascertain which other card-wearers they have been in contact with.
While smartphone-based contact-tracing apps in Singapore and Australia utilise Bluetooth tracing as well, uptake has been far below the 80 per cent required for effective tracing, and there have been technical problems from iPhones not keeping the app open at all times to different strength and different spec Bluetooth signals in different makes and models of phone having trouble talking to each other with any accuracy. (The NZ Covid Tracer app, which has had tiny takeup, does not utilise Bluetooth.)
Morgan says everyone wearing the same Bluetooth device - and around their neck on a lanyard - would eliminate 90 per cent of those problems, according to the Nelson trial (some experts still disagree - see the Herald's earlier roundup here ).
The entrepreneur, who has also worked with Sir Stephen Tindall, the Mowbray siblings and Rob Fyfe to get more PPE to health workers, said his Covid Card group had had difficulty working with the Ministry of Health.
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"The Ministry of Health does not have deep technology capabilities and only a small team which is like any other ministry," Morgan said
"They're normally focused on database integrations and other work of a more corporate nature.
"We've found them very insular and they have a very difficult culture to engage with.
"We've done this work ourselves with only light integration in MoH who believe their app is able to achieve something - this is not supported by even the most cursory research and certainly not by any rigorous investigations."
This weekend, a spokeswoman for the Ministry (which was invited to comment on the Herald's original story but did not make deadline), responded:
"Earlier this year, in the space of just a few weeks, the Ministry's Data and Digital team helped scale up the National Health Coordination Centre and the National Crisis Management Centre, and established the National Close Contact Service (NCCS), amongst many other achievements."
That work has been a key enabler of the public health response to Covid-19 and instrumental to helping the country move out of lockdown, the spokesman said.
"The Ministry has partnered with New Zealand company Rush Digital to develop the NZ COVID Tracer app. The Ministry also has the benefit of the wider health sector and other technology advisors," the spokesman said.
"The GCDO [office of the Government Chief Digital Officer] is the lead agency for providing advice to the Government on the proposed Covid Card.
"The Ministry has released functionality for NZ Covid Tracer incrementally based on what will be most effective in supporting contact tracing, consistent with a modern digital approach."
QR codes have been used because they provide accurate and reliable location information, which is valuable for contact tracing. The next update next week will also allow people to manually add entries to their digital diaries," the spokesman said.
"The Ministry is closely following the ongoing development of the Apple/Google Bluetooth framework and is considering how it could be incorporated within NZ Covid Tracer to best support contact tracing and supplement the existing features of the app."
And, as covered above, the spokesman said there were technical issues with Bluetooth, whether it was a feature of a smartphone tracing app or a dedicated device like the Covid Card.
Here, the Ministry gets backing from Victoria University senior lecturer Simon McCallum, who told the Herald there were now indications Covid could be airborne - hanging on droplets at a location long after a sneeze and their Bluetooth device had departed.
The MoH spokesman also underlined the practical objections raised by Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, who saw logistical challenges, legal issues and cultural issues around efforts to make a Covid Card mandatory. He questioned whether cash-strapped businesses would really turn away customers if wearing a card in public was made compulsory.
Morgan said the six-week lockdown, and the universal requirement to carry a driver's licence showed the Government could compel people. Logistical problems could be overcome. He acknowledged that at the moment, under the calm of level 1, mandatory cards would be a hard-sell. But he saw public sentiment shifting if there was an outbreak of community transmission.
Edwards has a paranoia about mission-creep toward a national identity card, in Morgan's view.
Morgan said he appreciated that sentiment, but that a Covid Card would expire after a year when its battery died. Live, or at least the level of tracking, would drop back to normal.
Meanwhile, tech commentator Andrew Chen said on of the key facets of Morgan's Covid Card push - a high-level of update, would also make a smartphone-based solution more effective.
He conceded that a single-standard Covid Card would be a more simple than getting different phones' Bluetooth to interact accurately, but added another complicating factor.
"If we want to reopen borders, we may want to move towards cross-border contact tracing," Chen said.
There is already co-ordination on the software side in the trans-Tasman relationship, with Australia adopting a close-variant of the Singapore government's Bluetooth-based TraceTogther app, and NZ going with its custom NZ Covid Tracer app, which does not support Bluetooth tracing - although it may be added at a later date.
"The EU has recently released contact tracing app standards to ensure interoperability. Having a uniquely Kiwi-only card doesn't help with that."
On that point, Morgan responds:
"We talked with the Singaporeans on standardising onto their protocol but those discussions at an early stage. We could still do that as they've launched already."
(Singapore recently launched a Bluetooth dongle worn around the neck.)
"The phone protocols are too heavy for the cards - more data exchanged means more battery consumption," Morgan adds.
"Singapore refactored their phone apps to make them interoperable with their wearables.
"The issue is one of who can decrypt card data. I don't know if New Zealanders would be happy if all Kiwis were in an Aussie database."
Anything possible with time and money but I'd say an NZ only scheme with published protocols would be the best approach in the near term.