Earlier this week on Tuesday (8 December), New Zealand authorities announced that it has adopted the Exposure Notification Framework developed by Apple and Google in the country’s contact tracing app for COVID-19, which is set to be released today.
About 2.4 million people have installed the NZ COVID Tracer app, with 90 per cent using smartphones that are compatible with Bluetooth tracing.
“Kiwis deserve a summer break more than ever this year but we cannot take our eye off the ball. The prospect of another outbreak should serve as a rock under our beach towels. That’s no bad thing,” said Chris Hipkins, the country’s Minister for COVID-19 Response.
ZDNet reported that the source code will also be released on Friday (11 December).
It was said that app users who test positive for COVID-19 will be able to alert other app users who may have been exposed to the virus.
The authorities, on the other hand, will not know whether the user has received an alert unless the user has requested information.
Mr Hipkins said that while it is “vitally important” for New Zealanders to adopt Bluetooth tracing to speed up contact tracing, he believes that people will still need to continue scanning QR codes “wherever we go”.
“QR codes allow us to create a private record of the places we’ve been, while Bluetooth creates an anonymised record of the people we’ve been near,” he said.
As such, combining the use of both QR codes and Bluetooth would help public health units and the National Investigation and Tracing Centre to rapidly identify and isolate close contacts, said Mr Hipkins.
“That continues to be the primary method for contact tracing in New Zealand,” he remarked.
As for New Zealanders who have no access to the app, Mr Hipkins said no decisions were made as to whether the proposed contact tracing cards will be rolled out now.
However, he highlighted that the cards, or other wearables, would potentially form part of a broader system of interoperable technologies.
“The recent community trial of the cards with the Te Arawa COVID-19 Response Hub has highlighted that a partnership with regards to any future rollout of cards or wearables will be essential in increasing community trust and participation with contact tracing technologies,” said Mr Hipkins.
S’pore govt refused to adopt Apple-Google contact tracing system
Over in Singapore, the government had refused to adopt Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification Framework for COVID-19 contact tracing.
It instead mooted the TraceTogether contact tracing app, which many users have observed does not work on equal measure across different smartphone operating systems such as iOS and Android.
Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative Vivian Balakrishnan previously said that Apple’s iOS suspends Bluetooth scanning when the app is running in the background, which would require iOS users to use the app in the foreground without interference by other applications.
To solve this, the government distributed a portable and wearable device, namely the TraceTogether token, to citizens who have difficulties in accessing the TraceTogether app.
Commenting on issues with the distribution of TraceTogether tokens, Workers’ Party (WP) member Gerald Giam said the Government should roll out a “working contact tracing phone app” and adopt Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification Framework instead of issuing tokens that cost about S$110 million.
“This will enable the app to run effectively on all smartphones, maximise adoption, protect privacy, enable cross-border interoperability and, most importantly, become a real weapon in our battle against COVID-19,” he wrote in a blog post in June.
Mr Giam noted that TraceTogether’s current protocol prevents the app from running a Bluetooth scan in the background. The Exposure Notifications protocol, on the other hand, is implemented at the operating system level which allows for more efficient operation as a background process.
“The Exposure Notifications System provides both privacy protections and privileged operating system access to allow contact tracing apps to work on almost all smartphones, even when they are locked,” he noted.
Mr Giam believes that by adopting the technologies developed by Apple and Google, the government will then only need to issue tokens to 9 per cent of residents who do not own a smartphone which will be “saving taxpayers over S$100 million”.
Dr Balakrishnan, however, claimed that the Exposure Notification Framework is less effective in Singapore’s local context and that the “graph” would not be available to the contact tracers.
“Although a potential close contact would be notified by the system, there would be no way to identify how, when and whom the person was infected by or passed the infection to,” the Minister replied to Mr Giam in a Facebook post.
Dr Balakrishnan went on to say that not everyone can afford a smartphone, and even so, many smartphone models cannot operate the BlueTrace protocol – TraceTogether’s protocol – or the Exposure Notification protocol well, which explains why issuing wearable devices would be more convenient.
“Perhaps my medical background makes me feel strongly that patients should be informed of a diagnosis, implications and options by a human being – and not a machine,” he added.
Minister Vivian Balakrishnan urges public not to rush even as TraceTogether token demand spikes
The distribution of tokens kicked off in September at 38 community centres (CCs) across the country.
However, it was reported that TraceTogether tokens demand had spiked right after the government announced in October that TraceTogether use will be made mandatory to gain entry at public venues.
The Smart Nation and Digital Government Group had to temporarily suspend token distributions due to the long queues formed at certain CCs, before resuming on 29 October with 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.
“We will adjust the numbers supplied to meet the demand, obviously, and our contracts allow us to make those necessary adjustments,” he remarked.
Dr Balakrishnan disclosed 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.
“I would also make the assurance that the implementation of the TraceTogether-only Safe Entry programme will not proceed until we make sure that everyone has access to either a token or the app and is comfortable using it,” the Minister added.