Australia launches COVID-19 tracking app as some states start easing rules

Australia launches COVID-19 tracking app as some states start easing rules

FILE PHOTO: A single sunbather remains following the closure of Bondi Beach to prevent the spread o
FILE PHOTO: A single sunbather remains following the closure of Bondi Beach after thousands of peopled flocked there in recent days, defying social distancing orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Sydney, Australia, March 21, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott/File Photo

MELBOURNE: The Australian government launched a coronavirus tracing app, COVIDSafe, on Sunday (Apr 26) and promised to legislate privacy protections around it as authorities try to get the country and the economy back onto more normal footing.

Australia and neighbouring New Zealand have both managed to get their coronavirus outbreaks under control before it strained public health systems, but officials in both two countries continue to worry about the risk of another flareup.

"We are winning, but we have not yet won," Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said at a televised briefing announcing the app's launch

The app, which is based on Singapore's TraceTogether software, uses Bluetooth signals to log when people have been close to one another. 

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The Australian government, which wants at least 40 per cent of the population to sign up to make the effort effective, said the voluntary app, which would not track location, is safe.

The app's stored contact data will enable health officials to trace people potentially exposed to infections.

"It will help us as we seek to return to normal and the Australian way of life," Hunt said. "No one has access to that, not even yourself ... only a state public health official can be given access to that data."

A legislative directive ensuring that will be proposed to the parliament in May, the health ministry said on the app's website on Sunday.

A few countries, including South Korea and Israel, are using high-tech methods of contact tracing which involves tracking peoples' location via phone networks, though such centralized, surveillance-based approaches are viewed as invasive and unacceptable in many countries.

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Trust in governments in Australia and New Zealand has risen since the start of the pandemic, opinion polls show, with leaders of both countries - ideologically opposite - hailed for their management in suppressing the coronavirus.

The rate of increase in new cases has been below 1 per cent for two weeks now in both countries - much lower than in many other countries.

On Sunday, Australia's states of Queensland and Western Australia said they would slightly ease social distancing rules this week to allow for larger outdoor public gatherings, among others, but officials in Victoria, second most populous state, said they were not ready to relax the state's hardline restrictions.

Australia reported 16 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, which took its total to 6,703, according to health ministry data. There have been 83 deaths.

In New Zealand, there were four new confirmed cases, bringing the total to 1,121. Eighteen people have died, health ministry data showed.

On Monday, New Zealand will start ease some of the world's strictest lockdown measures, and is also set to roll out a tracing app soon, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has warned this is not the only panacea.

"We have been very clear on from the beginning that no tracking app provides a silver bullet," Ardern said earlier this month.

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Source: Reuters/lk