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Friday, November 27, 2020

Australia considers COVID-19 tracing app while others take action

While Australia considers introducing an opt-in app to trace COVID-19 cases as a tool to help contain the spread of the coronavirus and to enable restrictions to be eased, other countries have already acted.

With news that the Federal Government is considering introducing an app that Australians can opt in to download to assist in tracing COVID-19 cases, much of the focus locally has been on Singapore’s TraceTogether app.

Figures suggest around 20% of the Singaporean population of 5.6 million have downloaded the app, which was launched on 20 March.

In Australia, the ABC has reported the Federal Government believes at least 40% of Australians would be required to voluntarily sign up for its proposed app to be effective.

However, reservations held by the Australian public around privacy concerns (especially in light of the recent High Court ruling in the case of News Corp journalist, Annika Smethurst) could hamper the adoption of a COVID-19 tracking app here.

Commonwealth Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the Attorney-General Christian Porter is working through privacy related issues in respect to the app.

Meanwhile in Norway, which launched its ‘smittestopp’ (infection stop) app on Thursday 16 April, the government has set out clear guidelines to allay privacy concerns of its 5.5 million citizens.

According to Norwegian English language news site, The Local, Norway’s health authorities have confirmed:

  • all data in the app will be continuously deleted after 30 days;
  • the entire app will be deleted in December 2020;
  • the app can be deleted at any time by anyone who has downloaded it, which will mean that all their data is deleted.

The Norwegian Government said the specially designed app would help trace coronavirus infections, making it more possible to start easing restrictions. Authorities hope that at least 50% of the population downloads it.

‘The Local’ reported that Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said the smittestopp app would be so accurate that it could be used to notify users via SMS if they have been in the presence of someone who has recently been confirmed as having COVID-19. The Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) is undertaking a trial period of the SMS function.

Ms Solberg called on “as many people as possible” to download the app, which would allow the Norwegian Government to lift restrictions earlier.

But in order to do this, she said several conditions must be met – that Norway gets a more effective infection detection system, and a system for faster and more effective isolation of the infection – which the smittestopp app is designed to do.

She said the app would only be used to monitor people to control the pandemic and not to police adherence to quarantine for confirmed cases, which has been raised as a potential concern in Australia.

A survey commissioned by the Norwegian health authorities has found that 64% of the Norwegian population was positive to the idea of the smittestopp app, with only 16% opposed. 

How does Norway compare to Australia?

While Norway’s population of around 5.5 million is less than a quarter of Australia’s 25.5 million population, Norway has recorded more than twice the number of deaths from COVID-19 than Australia.

According to the NIPH, as at 17 April: 137 people have died from coronavirus in Norway; 6,891 people have tested positive for coronavirus (117,213 are either suspected or confirmed to have had coronavirus); and 136,236 have been tested for coronavirus.

By comparison, as at 18 April, Australia has recorded 67 deaths; 6,533 confirmed cases; 3,819 have been reported as recovered from COVID-19; and more than 396,000 have been tested.

Meanwhile in Singapore, with a similar population (5.6 million) to Norway, the city-state has reported: 11 deaths; 5,050 confirmed cases (although Wikipedia reports 25,000 suspected cases); and 708 recovered from COVID-19.

Singapore recorded its first case of COVID-19 (a 66-year-old Chinese national from Wuhan) on 23 January, and Australia’s first case was recorded in Victoria on 25 January (a man returning from Wuhan in China), while Norway’s first case was recorded a month later, on 26 February. Most confirmed cases from outside Norway have been traced to Norwegian tourists returning from Italy and Austria.

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