Are QR codes now pointless? The experts weigh in

·News Reporter
·5-min read

You see them every day – but are you still using QR codes when you enter your local supermarket or watering hole?

QR code check-ins have been used across Australia since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, but do we still need them, or have they been rendered pointless?

QR codes and the rules

In NSW, QR code check-ins were made voluntary for a short period of time before they were reintroduced on December 27 as the outbreak of Covid cases worsened.

For about a two-week period they had been mandatory only at high-risk settings such as aged care facilities, but were then brought back across the community for all public venues and businesses.

It is mandatory for businesses to have QR code check-ins and “take reasonable steps” to ensure people who visit check-in and provide the correct information.

QR code check-ins are also still present in Victoria and Queensland.

Shoppers wearing face masks check in at a business at Campsie in Sydney
A man uses a QR code to check-in to a business at Campsie in Sydney. Source: AAP

Are QR code check-ins pointless given the case numbers?

Most states are reporting tens of thousands of new cases of coronavirus on a daily basis.

Does it effectively mean QR code check-ins are pointless now?

Dr James Trauer, from Monash University’s Epidemiological Modelling Unit, told Yahoo News Australia QR code check-ins could still be useful.

“My view is that we should keep everything we have in place while we're right in the middle of this current major wave, which is clearly a major crisis,” Dr Trauer said.

“Just having a record of where you've been on your phone could be useful if you hear about a major super-spreading event at a venue that you may have recently attended, even though that would be infrequent.”

A person uses a smart phone to check-in with a QR code at a supermarket in Pitt Street mall, in Sydney.
Businesses and individuals can be fined thousands in NSW if they don't comply with QR codes. Source: AAP

Are people still using QR code check-ins?

Individuals face on-the-spot fines of $1000 while businesses face $5000 fines in NSW for not complying.

So, regardless of whether people want to or not they are still required to check-in.

A Service NSW spokesperson confirmed these rules to Yahoo News Australia.

“NSW residents are required to check-in whenever they enter hospitality, retail and other high-risk venues such as gyms, hospitals or aged-care facilities to assist with contact tracing by NSW Health, and to help keep the community safe,” the spokesperson said.

“Covid Safe check-in data is also used to send Covid-19 case alerts through the Service NSW app, informing people when they have attended a business venue around the same time as a positive case so they can monitor for symptoms and get tested if they feel unwell.

It appears people continue to use them too. Service NSW, which runs the check-in app, shared statistics with Yahoo News Australia showing how many people continue to check-in.

There was a slight drop in December, but that can be put down to when they were voluntary for a short period.

Numbers ballooned as lockdown was lifted in October.

NSW total QR code check-ins by month

  • July 2021 - 142 million

  • August 2021 - 160 million

  • September 2021 - 168 million

  • October 2021 - 238 million

  • November 2021 - 256 million

  • December 2021 - 186 million

  • January 2022 (as of January 17) - 79 million

The case for whether check-ins are defunct or not

If people continue to use QR code check-ins, then they will continue to remain useful.

That’s at least if you ask Professor Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University.

“They are only as useful as how well they are used by the general public,” Professor Bennett told Yahoo News Australia.

“And how timely people find out they’re a case so that the notification system is triggered.”

“If it takes more than a week to test and then to have results notified, then you are already two generations of spread beyond any exposure whilst they were infectious in the early stages of their infection.”

QR code check-ins visible at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne as people arrive.
QR code check-ins visible at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne as people arrive. Source: Getty Images

However, University of Melbourne epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely told The Age earlier this month they have “little utility” given the change to what defines a close contact.

“Perhaps [check-ins] are still warranted in high-risk places like gyms and nightclubs. But not elsewhere,” Professor Blakely told the paper.

“Once Omicron has passed, a new more virulent variant arises, then we may need them again in the future.”

Professor Blakely is of course referring to the government’s changing definition of a close contact which is now someone who has been in contact with a confirmed Covid-19 case for a minimum of four hours.

A QR code check-in is seen on the door of Burwood Plaza in Sydney, Australia.
A QR code check-in at Burwood Plaza in Sydney. Source: Getty Images

Will QR code check-ins be scrapped?

It’s not clear if or when QR code check-ins will be a thing of the past.

However, Dr Trauer believes as soon as the current crisis ends and hospitalisations drop he would support giving them the boot too.

“For me, they're a significant privacy issue, even though there are safeguards in place, so we need a good public health rationale to be asking everyone to record their movements routinely,” he said.

“It would also be a good idea to keep the systems in place so that they can be reactivated in the event of new variants emerging, but I would support not requiring people to check in once the current crisis has passed.”

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