Mobile tracing is next step in virus battle in bid to stop outbreaks


Prime Minister Scott Morrison has rejected making the app mandatory but wants at least 40 per cent of the community to embrace the project, to make it as powerful as possible in finding people with the COVID-19 virus before they infect others.

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The project is a key element in the long-term ambition to gradually ease shutdowns and social distancing measures, to breathe life into the economy without allowing further outbreaks of the disease.

Another major shipment of test kits is on the way to Australia and is expected to allow wider testing for the virus, giving health authorities more information about the scale and spread of infections.

Mr Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt have warned against near-term easing of social controls on the grounds that greater testing and surveillance will be needed before the rules can be relaxed.

The government is also relying on the states to have teams in place to respond rapidly to any outbreak, raising the possibility of local shutdowns in one part of a state so communities and businesses in other parts of the same state can continue.

“We have got one of the best testing regimes in the world, but it needs to be more comprehensive, our response capacity to outbreaks needs to be even stronger,” Mr Morrison said on Tuesday.

“Before we can actually start easing up here, we need to lock in the control that we are currently exercising over this virus, but it can get away, and you need to have the mechanisms in place, the tools in place that can keep on top of it and deal with any outbreaks that come.”

One of those tools will be the new mobile project based on an app called TraceTogether, which has been available in Singapore since March 20 and has been worked on in Australia for several weeks.

The app was developed by the Government Technology Agency in Singapore and uses a Bluetooth connection to record contact with other people.

The app exchanges Bluetooth signals with other phones running the same app and sends this information to health agencies. The data is not stored on a user’s mobile phone.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison won’t make the phone tracking app mandatory but hopes 40 per cent of the population will sign up.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

“We’re very keen to use it and use it perhaps even more extensively than Singapore,” Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told a New Zealand parliamentary hearing on Tuesday.

“Obviously there’s a conversation to have with the community about the acceptability of it, but we think that idea, the TraceTogether app, is a really excellent one.”

Under current “track and trace” work, health officials and sometimes Australian Defence Force workers have to ask people with COVID-19 about their movements over previous days to identify others who may be infected.

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The app would make this much faster, but the government is expecting objections from privacy advocates worried about the amount of information being captured and stored.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has begun discussions with the Privacy Commissioner about these concerns.

The Singapore scheme tells users the only data being stored is the person’s mobile phone number and a “random anonymised” identification number, both of which are kept on a secure server and not made public.

The Singapore scheme does not collect GPS data or a person’s location, and the Australian version is expected to be the same.

A person using the app does not see data about the nearby phones, but the record of “close proximity” contacts over a period of time can be recovered by officials if the user gets infected with the virus and gives consent for the data to be accessed.

With AAP

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