4+ More Weeks of Lockdown Confirmed: Tracing App May Ease Restrictions but Requires Increased Surveillance

This blog is part of a series relating to the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19, novel coronavirus outbreak of 2020.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Thursday 16 April that coronavirus restrictions will stay in place for at least four more weeks.  These baseline regulations, including 1.5 metre distances between people, gatherings of no more than two people, and the closure of non-essential businesses, will remain as the Government continues to work on controlling the spread of coronavirus.  In order for the current measures to be relaxed, three specific criteria must be met: an expansion of COVID-19 testing, improvements in contact tracing, and quicker and more effective responses to local outbreaks.

Morrison noted that Australia would need “an even broader testing regime” in which officials could have a high level of confidence that any outbreaks would be quickly identified.  According to a ranking system developed by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Australia’s current testing regime is very comprehensive and advanced in detecting symptomatic cases of coronavirus; however, it would still need to be improved before restrictions could be relaxed.

Morrison commended state governments for working hard to determine where coronavirus cases originate and to whom they may have spread, but said that Australia must implement contact tracing of “an industrial capability” before the current restrictions can be relaxed.  Contact tracing refers to the process of interviewing a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 and identifying every person they have come into contact with in order to find out who else may have been exposed to the virus.  These people are then contacted, tested and interviewed as well and ordered to self-isolate or quarantine. Paired with social distancing, contact tracing is an exceptionally useful tool in slowing the spread of coronavirus as it allows experts to determine the origins and spread of positive COVID-19 cases.  In order to improve contact tracing, the Government is currently reviewing a contact tracing app called TraceTogether that has been used in Singapore since late March.  This app uses Bluetooth technology to exchange data between users including signal strength, time and user IDs.  This helps experts identify infected persons, who are asked to submit their positive status to the app, and track their interactions and distances people in the wider community.  In order to be effective, the app must be adopted by at least 40% of the population.  For comparison, in Singapore, a highly policed society with increased expectations of compliance with government regulations, the app has only been downloaded by an estimated 17% of the population.  Morrison said that use of the app would initially be voluntary, hoping that many Australians decide to use it “as a matter of national service”, but could become compulsory in the future.

Last, Morrison said there must be an improvement in the ability to respond to local outbreaks.  Pointing to a sudden outbreak at a hospital in Tasmania’s northwest, which has nearly doubled the number of cases in the state, Morrison described the need for quick-moving lockdowns to be enforced to ensure coronavirus “does not transmit broadly within the community”.  The recent outbreak in Tasmania has seen the Australian Defence Force and the Federal Government working with local authorities to help contain the spread of the virus in the local region.

While many people are eager to return to a semblance of normalcy, experts noted that any return to pre-coronavirus life is still a very long way off.  Brendan Murphy, Chief Medical Officer, explained that Australia’s current decline in recorded coronavirus cases is exactly why containment measures must stay in place.  As current social distancing measures appear to be working, relaxing restrictions now would inevitability see increased community transmission.  PM Morrison did note, however, that any scaling back of measures could be reversed, explaining, “you can’t rule out potentially increasing restrictions at some point if things got a bit out of control because the virus writes its own rules”.

As we slowly adjust to coronavirus containment measures, many people are hoping this new reality will not last too much longer.  If we want to speed things up, however, we must consider our own role in slowing the spread of coronavirus. What measures can members of the public take to help keep the virus contained, and how do we balance the adoption of these measures with concrete concerns about privacy, safety and surveillance?  How do we establish a culture in which we can trust that the right concerns are being weighed with the right priorities?

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