Friday, 17 April 2020

Can track and trace scale?

New Zealand's new Parliamentary arrangement, with the Leader of the Opposition chairing a committee that holds the Executive to account while bringing in expert advice, has been superb. It's been great in actually getting answers.

But I'm still none the wiser on how and whether New Zealand will be able to scale up contact tracing to the levels needed.

Looking through the course requirements and learning outcomes for the public health papers at Otago, contact tracing seems a bit like cost-benefit assessment in economics: something that people have to wind up learning on the job, because it's only really mentioned at a high level in courses. When I taught at Canterbury, the closest we ever came to teaching what actually goes into the CBA sausage was a single week of my elective Econ 224 paper. Sure, we built up the first-principles stuff you'd need to be able to think about it, but unless you were going into a place where you could learn it on the job, you were going to have to re-invent that wheel or go and find a textbook.

Contact tracing looks a bit similar. And chats with people who know about things suggest that it's learned on the job: that tracers work in small teams and people learn in those teams.

I can see how a newbie in a team with 3 experienced tracers learns how to do it. I can see scaling that up to have two or three newbies in a team of four led by one person who knows what they're doing. But it's something that might take a while to scale up to the kind of levels that are going to be needed, depending how long any of these folks might need to learn under supervision.

When Simon Bridges pressed Bloomfield on track and trace capabilities earlier this week, I didn't hear any straight answer. Bloomfield noted the importance of track and trace, but gave absolutely no indication that he knew what the plans were for scaling it up, or when track-and-trace might be hitting the levels necessary. 

It'll be harder to stay open when we open if that capability isn't in place. We'll have been in lockdown for four weeks, which you'd think would have given time to scale it up. But I've not seen anything official saying what the capacity is going to be hitting and when.

Update: Dave Guerin emails me with a pointer to Ireland's guidance documents for contact tracing. It doesn't look like scaling up should be inherently hard. It doesn't look like there would be any good reason that we wouldn't be able to trace lots of cases, quickly, if the government put resource into it as we went into lockdown. There are piles of people who could be hired to do that work. 

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