Sir Ian Taylor: All the tech missteps in Govt's Covid response

There have been problems with the Vaccine Pass system so far. Photo: Bevan Conley
There have been problems with the Vaccine Pass system so far. Photo: Bevan Conley
Dunedin entrepreneur Sir Ian Taylor highlights tech problems with the Government's response to Covid-19.

Prime Minister, I understand that Minister Hipkins has a lot on his plate as the Covid Response Minister and that probably explains why I have yet to receive the response from him that your office promised last week.

I imagine he would have been particularly busy on Wednesday last week when 15,000 people who had been waiting since before Covid to get some clarification on their residency visa status had their hopes dashed when, within minutes of opening, the Immigration website crashed.

I am not sure whether it was his office that provided you with the official response to the inevitable questions that were asked about how a site that had almost two years to be readied for its reopening, crashed within seconds.

Wherever it came from, the answer you were provided with was not great.

Your exact words were: - "We had anticipated that this may potentially be an issue - we just ask people to be patient."

How were we meant to interpret that from someone who has the full backing of the entire government civil service behind them - "Sorry but this is your fault. You shouldn't have logged on when we said you could. You should have known it would crash; we did!"

Sir Ian Taylor has not been impressed by the Government's use of technology. Photo: Jason Oxenham
Sir Ian Taylor has not been impressed by the Government's use of technology. Photo: Jason Oxenham
The missteps on the technology front, as far as the Covid response has been concerned, are becoming too numerous to count, but here are some to consider as your advisers continue to turn down offers of help.

An MIQ booking system that meant that someone who wanted to go to a cricket match in Australia has the same chance of getting a spot as someone who hadn't seen their family for two years! An MIQ system that people with money could pay someone else hundreds of dollars to jump the queue for them. An MIQ system that came up with a Virtual Lobby that allowed you to make up as many passports as you liked because it wasn't actually linked to the passport database.

A Vaccine Passport system that allows people to download a pdf that can be altered using standard editing software. A Vaccine Passport system that does not require a photograph to confirm you are the person holding the passport to help make the job of overstretched staff at vaccine mandated venues easier.

And now, the acknowledgement from our PM that you are happy for them to launch sites that they expect to crash. Really! This is our money you are spending - where is the accountability?

I don't profess to be an expert on many things, but I think I have earned the right to have a voice when it comes to technology. We have built and launched a number of websites over the years. One of the latest was an interactive golfing platform called Tourcast which launched flawlessly with hundreds of thousands of simultaneous users accessing video, real time 3D graphics and data, for any player, on any hole, for every shot in a golf tournament.

When we launched it, to a global audience, we did not "anticipate" that it would crash. Our client did not "anticipate" that it would crash, and our users definitely did not "anticipate" that it would crash. Nor did we 'anticipate' that it would win an Emmy Award – but it did.

With the government site that crashed on Wednesday we are talking about a reported user base of 15,000 people accessing a site that you had two years to get ready!

This from the Ministry that continues to turn down genuine offers of help from businesses that are becoming increasingly frustrated by the "thanks - but no thanks" responses we get from your advisers. I got one of those this week from Chris Bunny, your Deputy Secretary of MIQ, declining our offer to discuss the independent Ernst & Young Report that we commissioned which includes direct comparisons of the official tests with our 151 Off the Bench trial.

Actually, I am not sure that he declined it. It sounded more like something written by a PR consultant who had been asked to make sure that it didn't say anything that might contradict the messages that have been coming from the "single source of truth" press conferences every day, ie you have it under control and we have to wait until January next year for the report because you had no intention of doing anything to get any of our stranded people home before Xmas.

The full Ernst & Young Report that we offered to discuss with Deputy Secretary Bunny and his team was delivered to us just 45 minutes after I had received my final test result for his trial and, ironically, 15 minutes before Deputy Secretary Bunny and his team sent me an email asking me to explain why I hadn't turned up for my final test – the one they had sent a driver to take me to! That would be funny if it hadn't happened to others on the trial as well.

Does that sound under control to you?

Deputy Secretary Bunny did say that they have completed stage 1 of their reporting to the Minister. That dealt with the "application and expressions of interest process" and it was found to have been "a robust process for ensuring that participants were eligible and could meet the strict conditions met by cabinet".

In the spirit of transparency can I ask a couple of questions of my own – having been part of that process?

1: Did you fill all 150 slots?
2: How many people applied?
3: Were you confident your strict conditions were met when the only health checks we undertook was to fill in a pdf form each day that we could answer any way we liked?
4: Did you verify that the self-isolation locations actually met the strict conditions?
5: Did you set any specific objectives for the trial that were shared with the participants?
6: Did you gather independent data on the trial as evidence for your report?
7: Is it true that Minister Shaw joined the Self-Isolation trial after you said he wouldn't?
8: If he did – did he go through the same process that other participants did – particularly as it related to the deadline for applications?
9: Has anyone told you about the random bar codes some of us were sent asking us to turn up for testing at 2am in the morning, with no follow up on where to go or how we got there?

Robust? I don't think so.

And on a separate – "thanks but no thanks" note, were you aware that on July 10th 2020, in reply to an offer from the CEO of a US-based medical company (who has been coming to New Zealand for over 20 years) to discuss an FDA EUA approved, PCR equivalent, 98 per cent accurate, on the spot, Covid molecular test that could be self-administered and took just 30 minutes to provide a result, Dr Bloomfield's team sent this response:

"I thank you for your offer of assistance to the New Zealand Covid-19 response. We are currently examining a large number of testing methods and protocols to determine their reliability and appropriateness. We are not seeking further tests or testing methods at this time."

We will never know what was meant by "a large number of testing methods" because that level of information is not forthcoming from the MoH. What we do know is that Dr Bloomfield's decision to commit to one, logistically top-heavy, nasopharyngeal test that now has people waiting for days to get a result, has meant that we have one of the least effective testing regimes in the world.

The test his team declined to even discuss has now been trialled and is being used with great success in Singapore, Canada, Israel, Taiwan, and the United States, where President Biden has just acknowledged the importance of testing by announcing that no one will be able to enter the US who hasn't had a negative result within one day before boarding their flight.

I almost missed my flight to LA because it took three days to get my official test result, so getting to the US from New Zealand just got harder because your officials still believe they don't need our help.


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