Covid 19 coronavirus: Why aren’t we using tracer app, scanning QR codes?

Researchers have picked apart the reasons why most Kiwis still walk by QR code posters without scanning – leaving the country ever more vulnerable to an undetected Covid-19 outbreak.

While the NZ Covid Tracer app now has nearly three million registered users, fewer than 570,000 scans were recorded in the past 24-hour count.

A July briefing paper released by the Ministry of Health reported that registrations have increased over time, but the number of scans has progressively decreased – and only a “small fraction” of people are using it each day when there’s no community transmission.

Experts have warned usage has dwindled well below the level that would enable contact tracers to find undetected community cases and get ahead of an outbreak – particularly with fast-spreading variants like Delta raising the risk.

But the Government has so far opted against mandating use of the app at all times, which could cause major tech companies to stop offering Bluetooth functionality – a crucial feature that about 1.5 million people have installed.

Officials have also recommended the Government doesn’t proceed with rolling out its Bluetooth-enabled Covid Card, on the grounds it would need to be mandated, isn’t interoperable with other tech, and would come with costs that outweighed tracing benefits.

In a just-published study, University of Auckland researchers surveyed about 380 people last year to look at why Kiwis did or didn’t use the app.

They found just 31 per cent reported using it frequently, 24 per cent used it only sometimes, 21 per cent had it on their phone but hadn’t used it, and 24 per cent hadn’t even installed it.

Most participants initially reported not using it as they saw a low risk of being exposed to the virus, and felt there was no benefit in tracking their whereabouts so long as Covid-19 wasn’t circulating.

At the same time, participants acknowledged many Kiwis had become blase about the risk.

One told the researchers: “There is probably quite a bit of complacency now as well, given New Zealand has been doing so well with the virus.”

The study also found several other barriers, such as people not being able to use the app or forgetting to, QR codes not being displayed clearly enough, and users worrying over how the data was used.

One person claimed they “already have a digital trace” as they used Eftpos everywhere they went; another said they found the app “too clunky” so instead recorded their visits manually.

Lead author Dr Elizabeth Broadbent said the findings came as little surprise.

“Perceptions of risk are a key driver of behaviour,” she said.

“With no community transmission, people have low risk perceptions and low motivation to use the app.”

The findings echoed those from other recent surveys.

One study carried by The Research Agency indicated that an “expectation to scan” was a weak motivator, and another by PWC found many people felt scanning was an inconvenience, and weren’t in the habit of doing so as it wasn’t a social norm.

When Broadbent and colleagues looked at what encouraged people to use the app more, they found factors like heightened perceptions of risk, reminders in the media, and views about the importance of “teamwork” to protect the community.

She said the study pointed to some potential new strategies to boost uptake, such as demonstrations to show how the app could help limit outbreaks.

“Another strategy may be to increase motivation in other ways, for example by offering a daily prize draw for those who use the app.”

While the Government has gone some way down that track by adding gamification features to the app, like rewarding users with badges for scanning 14 days in a row, this still hasn’t brought any large uptick.

Officials were also developing a new feature that sent reminders to people who had the app installed but used it seldomly.

For people without sophisticated phones, Broadbent said improvements in software reliability could help address people’s frustration with app errors.

“It would also be fairly simple for many businesses to improve the location of QR codes for more convenient scanning,” she said.

“And messages from trusted sources about the app and protecting others appear to be working and could be increased.

“The security of the data collected should be clearly communicated.”

What Kiwis think about scanning

• “Ashley said to.” – A study participant on how reminders can encourage scanning.

• “I saw it on a news article and tried to install it, but found it too clunky. I instead write down everywhere I go and when.” – A participant discussing the app’s usability.

• “There is probably quite a bit of complacency now as well, given that New Zealand has been doing so well with the virus.” – A participant acknowledging complacency toward using the app.

• “Felt like Covid was gone. As soon as we got community transmission in NZ I downloaded the app and intend to use it.” – A participant explaining why they thought the virus didn’t pose enough of a risk for them to use the app.

• “Family swayed my thinking a bit in terms of the app potentially being used inappropriately by some to record my movements.” – A participant on privacy concerns.

(The app is decentralised and location data stays on our phones until it’s needed for contact tracing.)

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