Nearly all in Singapore are on Covid-19 contact tracing programme TraceTogether


About 3,000 users deregistered from the programme last year. — DESMOND WEE/The Straits Times/ANN

SINGAPORE: Nearly all the people in Singapore are now on the national Covid-19 contact tracing programme TraceTogether, 21 months after its launch.

A spokesman for the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) told The Straits Times on Wednesday (Jan 19) that almost all of Singapore's population above the age of six are on board the programme. It did not provide specific numbers.

This comes even as about 3,000 users deregistered from the programme last year. SNDGO said that this forms 0.056% of registered users, and that such cases include long-term pass holders who have left Singapore as well as people who have died.

It also includes those who have requested to opt out of it for data security reasons.

Then Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said last May that 1,155 users of TraceTogether had requested to opt out of the programme.

The TraceTogether programme, which identifies people in close contact with a Covid-19 patient via a Bluetooth-enabled app or token, came under the spotlight a year ago when it was revealed that its data could be used for criminal investigations,despite earlier assurances that it would be used solely for contact tracing.

Legislation was subsequently enacted to restrict the use of contact tracing data to investigations of seven categories of serious crimes such as murder, terrorism, rape and armed robbery.

When a user deregisters, all registration data, including his NRIC and contact number, is deleted from the TraceTogether server within three to five working days.

This means that all the Bluetooth data that a person's device has exchanged with other devices will no longer be associated with him.

Given the rising number of coronavirus cases and the overall shift to treating the disease as endemic, some have questioned if TraceTogether and national digital check-in system SafeEntry remain necessary.

Both these systems remain important to Singapore's fight against Covid-19, and they will be kept for now, said the Ministry of Health (MOH).

MOH adopted a “comprehensive and aggressive” contact tracing strategy at the beginning of the pandemic before vaccines were available so as to slow disease transmission, but the approach has shifted given Singapore's high level of vaccination.

It now uses these digital tools to perform contact tracing automatically for most cases and focus in-depth contact tracing efforts and resources to prevent and control spread in higher-risk settings.

Such settings include hospitals, nursing homes and pre-schools, which have potentially vulnerable individuals such as the elderly or those who are not yet eligible for vaccines.

This kind of contact tracing was also used to slow the spread of the more contagious Omicron Covid-19 variant here to buy time as the authorities worked to better understand the disease. This has since stopped as MOH now better understands the variant, said the ministry.

SafeEntry is now used to check the vaccination status of individuals before they enter venues, while TraceTogether is used to alert individuals through health risk warnings to their recent exposure to cases so that they can take appropriate precautions.

“These digital tools also allow us to identify possible places of higher-risk exposure, and help to guide public health actions such as the need to adjust safe management measures,” said MOH. It added that it will regularly review the relevance of existing rules and requirements.

Professor Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, expects that the use of these digital tools will stop soon given Singapore's high inoculation rate.

“Right now, their main function is to document vaccination status. With our high vaccination rates, that is likely to be unnecessary in the future,” he said.

Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, foresees that while these tools will not be necessary in the long term, there is still a need for these digital tools for at least the next 12 to 18 months.

“I expect there will be some degree of vaccine-differentiated measures that will be necessary even in an endemic Covid-19 situation, and if so, there will be a need for a platform to register and verify vaccination status,” he said.

“Whether TraceTogether and SafeEntry will continue to be used for this purpose, especially in entering premises permitted only for vaccinated people, will depend on how long we intend to continue with vaccine-differentiated measures.” – The Straits Times (Singapore)/Asia News Network

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