Apple has made its Covid-19 Exposure Notifications feature live in NZ, complete with Ministry of Health badging.

However, the Bluetooth tracking and alert solution requires notifications be sent by a local health authority - in our case the Ministry of Health - and the MoH says it's still in a testing phase.

But for what it's worth right now, iPhone owners have a new tool in the fight against Covid-19, with a similar measure coming soon for phones running on Android software (that is, the software that runs practically every phone that's not an Apple).

If it hasn't already, your iPhone will shortly prompt you to install the latest version of iOS - the software that runs your phone.

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It includes a new feature called Exposure Notifications that uses Bluetooth wireless technology to record when you're in close proximity to another smartphone user for a period of time.

Later, if you report a positive Covid-19 diagnosis, it will share that with people you have been in proximity with (without revealing your identity) so they know to get tested. Those alerts will be sent by the Ministry of Health (not Apple at any point) if and when the MoH decides to come on board.

Apple and Google have worked together on the Exposure Notifications feature, so your iPhone will record your close interactions with both iPhone and Android users (that is, almost everyone who owns a phone).

It all happens automatically. And going my experience - I see maybe one in three manually scan a QR code as they enter my local supermarket - that's a good thing. Contacts you wouldn't otherwise remember, or never knew you had, will be recorded.

Google has yet to release an upgrade to Android to support the feature on all phones by default. Because there are so many different makes and models of phone using Android, owners of Android phones from the likes of Samsung, Huawei, Sony, LG and Oppo will have to wait until the Ministry of Health's official NZ Covid Tracer app adds support for the Apple-Google initiative.

At this stage, especially, the iPhone Covid-19 tracker is no silver bullet, given it will only be as good as the number of people using it, and the MoH still being in a test phase with the reporting and alert element. And sometimes phones with different versions and/or different strength Bluetooth signals can miss each other (which entrepreneur Sam Morgan says is an argument for his universal Covid Card).

How the Apple-Google contact-tracing and notification solution works, part 1. Source / Apple-Google
How the Apple-Google contact-tracing and notification solution works, part 1. Source / Apple-Google

But if or when/it gains wide uptake, it will be another useful weapon in the war against the virus - and the more layers of protection and the more information, the better.

How the Apple-Google contact-tracing and notification solution works, part 2. Source / Apple-Google
How the Apple-Google contact-tracing and notification solution works, part 2. Source / Apple-Google

Bluetooth-tracking has been built into government Covid apps in countries like Singapore and Australia, but with mixed results, in part because iPhone versions of tracking apps, especially, have to be turned on then run in the foreground; the Apple-Google solution run in the background all the time.

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The NZ Ministry of Health's take

"We are looking into the feasibility of using the Apple-Google Exposure Notification Framework (ENF) in New Zealand to assist with contact tracing but there has been no decision on this yet," a Ministry of Health spokesman told the Herald this morning.

"If users in New Zealand choose to turn on the ENF function in their Apple phones, any information collected cannot currently be shared with New Zealand's contact tracing systems."

The Herald has a query in with Apple over whether it will issue its own alerts in the meantime.

"We're continuing to talk to Apple about the functionality and will provide advice to Government when we have a clearer picture of its value to contact tracing," the MoH spokesman said.

"If there was a decision to go down this path, we would need to build it into our NZ Covid Tracer app and the infrastructure to share it with our contact tracing system and notify users."

The MoH continues to test the Apple-Google solution, he said.

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"With the update to iPhones last week anyone with iOS 13.7 may be able to turn on the new Express Notification Service and find the Ministry of Health.

"However, this service remains in testing. The Ministry is not collecting information from consumers relating to this service or sending out notifications derived from this data."

The MoH was talking to Apple, plus other countries already using the technology. No decision had been made on whether to add it to NZ's mix of tracing solutions.

How to turn on Apple's Exposure Notifications

Tech commentator Paul Spain told me Exposure Notifications was off by default on his iPhone - but also that after he diasable the feature, he was unable to turn it on again. Others have found the same problem, going by the Geekzone forum. This issue might not be resolved until the MoH officially comes on board.

I was slightly perturbed to find Exposure Notifications on by default after I downloaded iOS 13.7 (I wondered if it was due to my settings in the MoH's NZ Covid Tracer app).

But Apple and Google do say they encrypt your data, only share it in anonymised form, and delete it after three weeks.

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Plus, it's not stretching that far beyond our current situation, where Statistics NZ is using (anonymiosed) phone data to track our movements and police with the power to track your phones without our consent if there is a risk to our safety.

As Otago University public health professor Nick Wilson has said, success stories offshore show we need to take a multi-pronged approach against the pandemic, incorporating manual tracing, automated tracking and telecommunications data.

See below for how to make sure you've got Exposure Notifications switched on (or off) on your iPhone.

If you can't see Exposure Notifications in Settings yet, go to Settings>General>Software Update to download the latest version of iOS.