Singapore's COVID-19 contact tracing tech TraceTogether catches Jacinda Ardern's eye to fight coronavirus

Singapore's COVID-19 contact tracing app TraceTogether has caught Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's eye, and the Government is now investigating whether it could work in New Zealand. 

Ardern said in a speech on Thursday that the Ministry of Health is already working on a locally developed app that will assist with contact tracing in the country's fight against the coronavirus. 

She said it's in "the early stages" and will have "basic functionality" but will be "important" as it will help to update the Government's national health database with current contact details. 

"We are investigating the Singaporean Government's Bluetooth-based app TraceTogether that can record interactions between a phone and any other phones nearby that have the app installed." 

Singapore, a city-state located in Southeast Asia, launched the tech on March 20 and described it as a supplementary tool to help trace the recent contacts of people with COVID-19. 

Mobile phones that have the app installed exchange short-distance Bluetooth signals when app users are near each other, and the records of those encounters - including the duration - are stored on the device for 21 days. 

If a user is diagnosed with COVID-19, Singapore's health officials can then identify who the patient interacted with. The app's website says personal details such as a user's name and contact list cannot be accessed. 

How would it work in New Zealand?

Ardern said the data would be stored on the phone and if the user tests positive they would then need to release the data to the Government for contact tracing, so close contacts could be automatically notified of their need to self-isolate and be tested.

With Singapore planning to open source their technology next week, Ardern said the Government has made contact with the Singaporean Government and registered its interest. 

"I have a phone call with Prime Minister Lee [Hsien Loong] of Singapore this evening where I will be discussing this technology further," Ardern said. 

"I think it's important to note that these kinds of apps are useful, but don't solve everything. What's most important is that you have good people, and enough people, working on contact tracing as quickly as possible."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pictured with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 25th APEC Summit in Vietnam in 2017.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pictured with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 25th APEC Summit in Vietnam in 2017. Photo credit: Getty

The Prime Minister said the Government has no plans to force the population to use the app. 

"Ultimately, the decision is that we either have something that everyone is forced to use, or we have something that people voluntarily use, but we try and get as much uptake as possible," she said. 

"There are huge issues with forcing people to use apps that track their movements, as you can imagine, so we are opting for apps that people choose to partake in.

"I think if people understand that it's one of the things that will help us stay out of stringent measures like alert level 4 then they might be encouraged to take it up."

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said contact tracing can be enhanced by using a range of social media platforms, to find people and communicate with them, and he said that's "something we're adding into our process". 

Ardern said before the lockdown, it would have been extremely difficult for people to name every single person that they had been within two metres of. 

"That is the challenge of contact tracing. It's hugely difficult. At alert level 4, it's much easier because you list - if you're following the rules - your bubble."

Ardern said that's why it's so important to have trained public health officials who can undertake "intensive interviews" and then work with customs, police, airlines and social media, because in some cases all they have is a first name. 

She said that's why even a basic app that has people enrol, register and provide some information, will help the officials, because sometimes they don't even have a person's most up-to-date phone number. 

Similar digital contact tracing methods have been adopted across the globe, such as Israel which launched an app that warns users if they have come into contact with someone with COVID-19. 

The European Commission is looking into adopting a system where European Union citizens are tracked via their phones - data officials say it would be collected and deleted completely after the pandemic is over. 

New Zealand's early lockdown has already proven to be successful, with the Ministry of Health revealing 29 new cases of the virus on Thursday - the fourth day in a row the number of new cases dropped, bringing the total number of cases to 1239. 

By comparison, more than 400,000 people in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of more than 14,000 US citizens. 

The Prime Minister has also announced that every arrival to New Zealand will be quarantined for two weeks in hotels organised by the Government.