Singapore: Coronavirus tracing device starts in June

Singapore – Singapore is expected to deliver the first batch of portable contact tracing devices to people in the latter half of June, as the country looks to progressively introduce this method to tackle the spread of  coronavirus.

The TraceTogether Token device, which is set to be distributed to everyone in the country, will not be used for location tracking, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in a briefing on Monday, addressing concerns that have quickly arisen after news of the government’s plan last week.

Like the TraceTogether mobile app, which debuted in March, the token uses Bluetooth signals to record other nearby contact-tracing devices and would function in the same way. So far, about 1.8 million residents, or just under a third of the population, have downloaded the phone app.

“I want to emphasise: there is no electronic tagging, there is no geolocation tracking,” said Balakrishnan, who’s also minister-in-charge of the country’s Smart Nation initiative.

“This is only purely focused on Bluetooth proximity data, and only used for contact tracing,” he said.

“I’m going to do my best to try to push the participation rates up without having to go down the mandatory route,” Balakrishnan said. The stance may change if the virus circumstances worsen and the health ministry determines there is no other choice.

“That is something we cannot predict at this point in time,” he added.

Balakrishnan said an ideal participation rate for the portable device would be above 75 per cent.

The move to introduce the wearable device has sparked public resistance. More than 37,000 people have signed an online petition started on June 7.

Balakrishnan said in a Facebook post on Friday that the device would act as a personal electronic diary that uses Bluetooth to collate information on close contacts with other wearers.

This information would be automatically deleted after 25 days and stay on the device unless the wearer was declared infected. At that point, tracers would use the information to track down contacts for potential infection, he said.

“We will continue to audit and make sure that no data leakage occurs,” he said on Monday.

Meanwhile, Singapore is setting up screening facilities across the island, as it starts to conduct active surveillance testing among targeted groups, the health ministry said in a statement on Monday.

This is to identify Covid-19 cases earlier and quickly contain any potential spread in the community, it said.

Besides diagnostic testing in the community and migrant worker dormitories, testing has been extended to individuals who are diagnosed with acute respiratory infection when they first see their doctor, starting first with groups such as seniors aged 65 years old and above. It also includes health care workers, as well as school staff and older students.

Over the past months, Singapore’s capacity to conduct tests for Covid-19 has been boosted. As of June 1, the nation has conducted more than 408,000 tests, or 71,700 tests per million population, the health ministry said.

Singapore is in the process of easing partial lockdown measures, which shut schools and most offices in early April, and last week entered the first of a three-phase easing.

It has one of the highest reported number of coronavirus infections in Asia with more than 38,000 confirmed cases as of Monday. (SCMP)