Australia to track coronavirus encounters with payment card records

Plan calls to link government data across jurisdictions, even sharing airline records to track outbreaks and people who may be at risk of infection

Australia will develop the capability to use payment records in the service of coronavirus contact tracing.

A National Contact Tracing Review released last Friday called for a raft of information technology responses to the pandemic, on grounds that containment of the novel coronavirus will be needed even after a vaccine emerges. The report notes that Australia has generally done very well managing the pandemic, but that some contact tracing efforts still rely on handwritten records and contact details are inconsistently recorded in public venues such as restaurants.

Complicating matters is that Australia’s eight State and Territory provide contact tracing services, with the Commonwealth government operating less hands-on services like the COVIDsafe national contact tracing app and directing the overall pandemic response.

The report therefore sets out “an optimal contact tracing and outbreak management system”, with one element of that system being the payment-tracker, described as follows:

“The Commonwealth should lead the development of arrangements between states and territories and payment card providers so that contact tracers from the states and territories will be able to request contact details of persons who have made a transaction at a hotspot venue, noting that privacy rules will apply and in some jurisdictions legislative change may be required.”

The review also calls for Australia’s different jurisdictions to continue operating their own contact tracing systems, but for information-sharing to be improved.

“The important thing is that information is shared efficiently, where necessary. States and territories must be able to access and transfer information about cases and contacts where people have crossed borders,” the review states. “Currently, such information is conveyed through phone calls or emails, a practice that would not withstand high case numbers.”

“For this reason, we recommend the development of a digital data exchange mechanism,” the review suggested, defining the best possible system as allowing “States and Territories to share contact tracing data, and incorporate contact tracing data from sources such as airline and shipping passenger manifests, registries of test results and relevant government agency data stores.”

The review also considers Australia’s national contact tracing app, COVIDSafe, which has proven controversial locally as while it cost over AU$70m (US$51m) to develop and operate it has detected few otherwise-untraceable COVID-19 cases.

Information is conveyed through phone calls or emails, a practice that would not withstand high case numbers.

The review offers an explanation about why that may the be case by recommending further consultation about how to move data from the Commonwealth-operated app into States and Territory contact tracing processes.

“The Commonwealth should consult with the states and territories on the best means to report usage of the app in contact tracing,” the review says.

Seven of Australia’s eight jurisdictions have gone several days without community transmission of the virus, however an outbreak in South Australia has led to renewed border closures and a mass-testing program. ®

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