TraceTogether bags international award for innovation despite not meeting Govt minimum uptake target for entering Phase 3 of post-circuit breaker reopening

Singapore’s TraceTogether on Monday (7 December) emerged as the Asia-Pacific winner of market research firm Gartner’s 2020 Government Eye on Innovation Award, beating two finalists from Taiwan and one from India.

Winners were selected via a poll of government organisations around the world.

Singapore’s Government Technology Agency senior director Jason Bay, who leads the TraceTogether team, was quoted as saying: “We are humbled and grateful for the support we have received from our 3.4 million users – 60 per cent of Singapore’s population”.

“Thank you for walking this journey of community-driven contact tracing with us, and supporting the use of Bluetooth mobile technology to contribute in the fight against Covid-19,” Bay added.

TraceTogether is a combination of a mobile app and token which uses Bluetooth proximity detection to identify those in close contact with people who are positive for COVID-19.

By the end of 2020, it will be mandatory for people to check-in at public venues—from malls to restaurants—using either the app or token. The tokens are being distributed one constituency at a time via community clubs and centres around the country.

Singapore is aiming for a 70 per cent take-up rate of the TraceTogether programme among the population of 5.7 million before moving on to the third phase of its post-circuit breaker reopening plan.

The other two conditions that have to be met are safe management compliance and sufficient testing capabilities.

Now, what’s concerning here is that experts have said that Singapore is unlikely to move to Phase 3, given the low take-up rate of TraceTogether thus far.

The Smart Nation and Digital Government Office had stated that only about 2.9 million people — just a little over 50 per cent of the population — have downloaded the app or collected the token so far.

Alex Cook, vice-dean of research at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, told The Straits Times on Monday (7 December): “One of the targets set has been for sufficient numbers of people to have TraceTogether as more effective contact tracing will counter the relaxation in rules. I think we’re not yet at that target, and that may hold us back from advancing a phase.”

Concurring with Assoc Prof Cook’s statement, Teo Yik Ying — dean of the school — said that adoption of the app or token is still lagging.

“At present, it appears we will not be moving to Phase Three by the end of the year as it appears that token distribution has not achieved a complete coverage of the entire population,” Prof Teo remarked.

The question of a low take-up rate, however, may not be just down to the people not adopting the tokens or app.

Tokens—which the government had started distributing in September—were meant to be given to those who do not have a smartphone to install the app, particularly children and the elderly.

However, it was reported that demand for TraceTogether tokens had spiked right after the Government announced that the use of TraceTogether will be made mandatory in order for people to gain entry at public venues.

This is despite the fact that Vivian Balakrishnan — Minister-in-Charge of the Smart Nation initiative — assured that the use of the contact tracing app or token will not be made “mandatory” by the government.

Due to high demand and long queues for tokens at certain CCs, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group had to temporarily suspend token distributions before resuming on 29 October, one constituency at a time to “better match demand”.

Commenting on the high demand of tokens, Dr Balakrishnan urged the public not to rush and assured that there would be more than enough tokens to be distributed.

He added that while the current target number of tokens to be produced is about 2.7 million, this number can be adjusted in accordance with demand.

News of this international award for TraceTogether was met with some amount of scepticism online.

Netizens on The Straits Times’ Facebook page noted that while the programme itself may be good, the distribution and collection of tokens was rather poor.

A couple of people shared that when they tried to collect their TraceTogether token, they were told to come back another time.

One person said they were told that tokens at their CC were ‘out of stock’.

Another person dismissed the award altogether, adding that a “poll of government organizations” does not accurately represent the success of the programme. Instead, users should be polled, they opined.

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