The tech industry’s problem with the Vaccine Pass

Members of the tech industry don’t have any problem with the Vaccine Pass system outlined by the Ministry of Health – which from later this month will see people carry a digital copy of a QR code on their phone, or a printout in their pocket, that can be scanned by a venue, or travel or authority, to learn their vaccination status.

But they are asking why a request for proposals wasn’t issued months earlier – or even last year.

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Entrepreneur Sir Ian Taylor says New Zealand squandered the time it had between the end of the first wave of lockdowns, and the arrival of Delta.

“We had 16 months without Covid, and we didn’t do anything.”

The time to start development on a vaccine pass and certification systems was as soon as NZ knew vaccines were on the way, Taylor says.

Midway through last year, a tech industry group that included Taylor, Sam Morgan and Morris Pita approached the Government about technology-based solutions to combat the pandemic. Their Covid card for Bluetooth tracking was the most high profile, but Pita also told the Government that a key vaccination issue would be certifying who had, or had not, received a jab – and how many. A development push needed to get under way, he said.

“But he was politely declined,” Taylor says. “A lot of things didn’t get off the ground.”

Mark Jeffries – founder of two health tech companies, Mycare and Platforms for Good – says that’s the broad view of the ICT industry. “Nobody believes the Government’s moved fast enough on technologies that support solutions that relate to Covid.”

He adds, “They have done some good work. The scanning solution looks to be serving us pretty well. So, kudos for that. But the ones that allow us to move with freedom, such as the Vaccine Pass, could have been undertaken a lot sooner.”

Jeffries’ various enterprises all share the theme of making healthcare more socially inclusive. He has pitched for a number of Government tenders, but not the Vaccine Pass.

His general take has been that Ministry of Health request-for-proposals have been too proscribed, with too many pre-conceived notions “Sometimes you wonder whether the solution has been prescribed before the process, There are many ways to achieve things, and I’m not sure that the ministry always gets the sort of innovation that’s available to it.”

Last week, Spark subsidiary Mattr revealed it had won the tender to be the main provider of the technology that underpins the Ministry’s My Vaccine Pass, and that it will develop and support the Ministry’s Verifier App for businesses to confirm a person’s vaccine status. A domestic pass is due to be launched by the end of this month, all going well, with a version for international travellers coming later.

Some in the tech industry were pleased that a major Covid contract had gone to a local player, but that was undercut by concerns about how long it took for the tender to get under way, and the tight timeline that Mattr is now required to meet.

The Herald asked the Ministry of Health for a timeline on the Vaccine Pass contract.

Ministry of Health group manager national digital services Michael Dreyer replied, “A standard tender process was followed for this work, which commenced in July. A Request for Proposal was released on July 9, 2021, to seven suppliers. The Ministry of Health standard procurement process was followed, and the evaluation panel recommendation was approved on September 15, 2021. The contract was signed on October 13, 2021”.

Why not kick off the whole process earlier?

“The use of vaccine certificates is a significant decision and we took time to assess their effectiveness and use overseas before the decision was made to use them,” said Dreyer.

But, in Taylor’s opinion, the Vaccine Pass is an 11th-hour effort, and fits what he sees as a general pattern of NZ throwing away its 16-month advantage as little progress was made on MIQ, tracking, businesses support and other elements.

The Delta lockdown from August this year looked far too much like the first lockdown in March 2020, he says.

“The first time, Government mandated what was an essential business. In the 16 months since, we should have been approaching it from the point of view that every business is essential. What might our lockdowns look like so we don’t end up with the same damage to the economy and people that we had this time.”

He adds, “It’s a constant reminder that we once led the world, but then we had 16 months without Covid and we did nothing.”

POSTSCRIPT: Can an international visitor get a Vaccine Pass?

The Government is creating its own vaccine status verification app, and also making the underlying technology available to third parties, so organisations from travel agents to gyms can incorporate vaccine verification into their own apps.

Whether you’re faced with the official Government vaccine verification app, or a third-party app that supports it, you’ll need to produce a vaccine certificate for it to scan – in the form of a QR code stored on your smartphone. If you have no phone, you’ll be able to phone the Ministry of Health and ask them to snail mail you a printout.

And the first step to getting a QR code (and remember this system is still a work in progress) is to visit the Ministry of Health operated MyCovidRecord website.

Since November 1, international visitors to NZ have been required to provide proof they are fully vaccinated.

The MyCovidRecord system is geared for New Zealanders. Among other information, you have to supply your NHI number.

So how will the Vaccine Pass system accommodate international visitors – now in their very limited numbers – and in future as things start to open up more?

In short, it will be a case of BYO hardcopy or digital certificate.

“People who have been fully vaccinated will need a digital vaccine passport or another form of electronic or paper document from a government health authority or approval authority confirming they have had a full Covid-19 vaccine course,” a Ministry of Health spokesperson told the Herald.

“Their evidence must confirm that they have received one or more Covid-19 vaccines (how many doses depends on which vaccine they have received) and:

• their name

• the name of the vaccine or vaccines they received

• the name of the agency that administered them

• the name of the place where they received them

• the date they received them — if they received two doses, they must have two dates.

“Their evidence must confirm their last dose was at least 14 days before departure for New Zealand.

“If they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, they must have an electronic or paper medical certificate from a medical practitioner that says they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.”

So while it will be a simple case of scan-and-enter for Kiwis visiting a venue that requires a Vaccine Pass (assuming they can navigate the registration process to procure their QR code) the situation for dealing with international visitors could be a lot messier, as things stand.

While an international version of NZ’s Vaccine Pass is still in the works, Kiwis heading offshore can request a letter from the Ministry of Health, via the MyCovidRecord portal, which confirms their vaccine status.

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