Boost for contact tracing to ensure ‘gold standard’ system

The Government has announced a major investment in the country’s contact tracing system to ensure we have a gold standard response to any future surge of COVID-19 cases.

“We recognised early that contact tracing is a key line of defence in the battle against COVID-19. It is vital to identifying the source of any cases, containing them and preventing further spread,” Health Minister Dr David Clark said.

“Already we have massively increased our ability to conduct contact tracing. Last month we set up the National Close Contact Service (NCCS), and quickly developed a national information technology solution to better manage cases.

“All of this built on the excellent work of Public Health Units (PHUs).

“Currently the NCCS has capacity to make 5,000 calls per day, and the Ministry of Health is confident that can be scaled up to 10,000 if required. PHUs can also trace up to185 cases per day between them.

“We have been well served by our contact tracing. Of the more than 1400 cases of COVID-19 we’ve seen in New Zealand just a small number are still being investigated to identify the source of infection. That is a testament to the skilled work of public health staff.

“However, it is vital that we continue to build our capacity to provide insurance against any future outbreaks - and we ensure the work of the NCCS and PHUs complement each other. This is particularly important as we move down Alert Levels and see people moving about more within the community.

“To further strengthen our contact tracing Cabinet today approved up to a $55 million investment. This is on top of the initial $15 million that went to PHUs in March for contact tracing.

“This funding will mean PHUs can be expanded as required, with additional surge capacity of up to 300 full time equivalent staff. The NCCS will also get extra resources to manage complex investigations, such as detailed analysis of clusters.

“These next steps developing our contact tracing capability reflect the recommendations of the independent audit of contact tracing conducted by Ayesha Verrall of the University of Otago.

“To help provide assurance that this work is on track, I will appoint an expert group (under Section 11 of the Public Health and Disability Act 200) to advise me on progress. Terms of Reference are being developed currently.

“The information technology platform (the National Contact Tracing Solution) will be developed further and future-proofed so that it can manage the delivery of a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available.

“The public response to the threat of COVID-19 has been remarkable. By staying home and sticking to our bubbles we have saved lives - but we cannot take anything for granted.

“Furthering our support for contact tracing through this significant investment when the number of new cases each day is low, is just another example of the Government going hard and going earlier in the battle against COVID-19,” David Clark said.

Note: The Ministry of Health has today also released the Rapid Audit of Contact Tracing for Covid-19 in New Zealand that was conducted by Ayesha Verrall of the University of Otago. It is available on the Ministry’s website.