As the Prime Minister prepares the country for possible regional Covid-19 outbreaks, the Government's slow development of high-tech contact tracing aids is drawing criticism.

More than $2.6 million has been spent on the NZ Covid Tracer app but each person who's downloaded the app has only used it twice on average.

Ministers yesterday signalled it could soon be mandatory for businesses to display QR codes and that money will be spent on promoting wider uptake of the app.

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Jacinda Ardern yesterday announced the Covid-19 response framework, which would move different regions up alert levels if there was an outbreak.

A vital part of that plan was rapidly tracing close contacts and Ardern implored every New Zealander to download and use the Government's app.

"We've created a system that works - now we're asking people to use it," Ardern said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has outlined a Covid-19 response which would see a regional approach to an outbreak. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has outlined a Covid-19 response which would see a regional approach to an outbreak. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Since stepping into the Health Minister role two weeks ago, Chris Hipkins has spoken almost daily about how important the app is and has urged people to use it.

But daily poster scans have remained minimal at about 10,000 a day. That equates 0.2 per cent of the population, based on the generous assumption each scan is one person using the app.

And on average, each of the 596,000 people who've downloaded the app have used it 2.3 times.

Hipkins said yesterday this wasn't good enough. A soon-to-be released update will make the app compatible with more smartphones and include an option for people to manually add where they've been.

"We've got the framework there for a gold standard contact tracing system, but it is reliant on all of us playing our role."


Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said the app was "an adjunct" to the contact tracing system, which will be scaled up by the end of next month to make 20,000 phone calls per day.

Bloomfield said even just downloading the app would mean the Health Ministry would have up-to-date contact details, which would greatly help tracing efforts.

He also outlined new testing criteria, which should ensure people with respiratory symptoms who at higher risk of complications from Covid-19 are tested.

It's hoped broadening the advice would return daily testing numbers to about 4000 a day after a significant drop-off in the past fortnight.

"It's very important New Zealanders don't become complacent about the threat of Covid-19. We need to keep testing people in the community," Bloomfield said.

Public health expert Nick Wilson, a professor at Otago University, has countered Ardern's claim the app is "a good system".


"How can they imagine it's a good system if no one's using it - it makes no sense."

Digital contact tracing expert Andrew Chen didn't agree the system was "gold standard".

"But I certainly agree more people need to use it. They need to promote it.

"I don't think people are going to use it more just because Bloomfield says we should at the 1pm presser."

Wilson urged the Government to consider other alternatives and favours the South Korean strategy, which tracks people through their spending and mobile data and can trace contacts within hours.

Wilson said it would require a legislative change to privacy laws, but called it "irresponsible" for it not to be looked at.


"All sensible options used in democracies should be explored.

"It's just intellectual laziness if the government doesn't explain seriously why the South Korea approach is being ignored."

The Government yesterday couldn't confirm whether the system was one of the options it was looking into but Ardern said they were keeping "a very open mind" about solutions.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins hasn't ruled out extra funding to promote the Covid Tracer app as the Government pushes uptake. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Health Minister Chris Hipkins hasn't ruled out extra funding to promote the Covid Tracer app as the Government pushes uptake. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Ardern said the bluetooth-enabled CovidTracer Card was still being trialled and officials were considering a wearable "dongle".

Rob Fyfe, who led a public and private working group during the peak of the Covid-19 crisis, has been working on a wearable device to track people's movements.

He told TVNZ's Q&A the device didn't store personal information, just a number, and would be able to tell which other devices it had come into close proximity to.


Ardern referred questions about what the Government was considering to Minister of Government Digital Services Kris Faafoi. His office declined an interview yesterday and said "there isn't a lot more to say at this point".

Act leader David Seymour called on the Government to be more transparent about what it was considering and should invite the private tech sector to come up with ideas.

"We're not fighting a war here - you don't need to do everything in secret. We've got all these tech people in New Zealand who'd love to help," Seymour said.

"Instead you've got a whole lot of frustrated and able people who aren't being brought into the conversation. Just look at Rob Fyfe."

The growing pressure on improving uptake came as Ardern launched the framework for what New Zealanders could expect if there was community transmission.

It's based on three scenarios that would determine the level of response.


Although the border measures were effective, she said "no system is 100 per cent effective".

Despite yesterday marking 75 days since the last case of community transmission - another two cases were caught in managed isolation facilities - Ardern said it was important to prepare for a community outbreak.

The framework could move some regions up alert levels to contain an outbreak so a lockdown of the entire country could be avoided.

Suburbs, cities or regionscould shut down with roadblocks but it would be managed based on health advice.

Ardern said "no one wants to go backwards but the reality is our fight against the virus is not over and we must have a plan at the ready to protect our current position if it comes back".