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Singapore bolsters Bluetooth contact-tracing as new COVID wave sends students and workers home again

TraceTogether app becomes primary tracking tool and compulsory in many settings

Singapore has made its Bluetooth-powered "TraceTogether" contact-tracing app its preferred means of recording movements in public spaces across the island.

Singapore was one of the first countries to introduce a contact-tracing app, which it had up and running in mid-March 2020. The nation's effort, "TraceTogether" used Bluetooth to detect the proximity of other users, recorded such interactions and allowed contact with users in the event they had come into contact with a COVID-carrier. Singapore later added a dedicated TraceTogether token that did the same job, but for those who don't or would rather not use a smartphone.

In May 2020 Singapore added another system called SafeEntry that required businesses to checks visitors into and out of their premises using their smartphones and a QR code.

As of today, May 17th, TraceTogether is compulsory in public spaces for anyone over the age of seven. QR code check-in is still possible because TraceTogether includes a QR-code reader. But Singapore has been giving out "Safe Entry Gateway (SEGW) Boxes" that allow check-in by merely waving a smartphone or token and waiting for a green light to appear.

The Gateways are suggested as more efficient and COVID-safe, as users no longer need to scan a QR code and complete a form.

The SEGW box is free and provided by the government, but smaller businesses without a box can download the Safe Entry Business App that allows their smartphone to emulate a box.

According to a Singapore government website FAQ:

When a Covid-19 patient is contacted by Ministry of Health, he/she is required by law to assist in the activity mapping process, and may be asked to provide any information within his/her knowledge, or produce any document or record in his/her possession for the purposes of contact tracing.

The Tokens will supplement the contact tracing efforts and make it easier for the patient to recall recent interactions and activities, and for picking up close contacts with people that the patient does not know.

The website stated the technology is “privacy-preserving by design,” as the app and token do not capture GPS or geolocation data, the data is stored in an encrypted format and the token does not have Internet or cellular connectivity.

Extensive contact tracing alongside COVID testing have largely succeeded at keeping the pandemic under control in Singapore, after a two-month lockdown from April 2020 quelled an outbreak that was amplified in foreign worker dormitories and saw almost half of their 323,000 residents testing positive for COVID at some point in time.

Singapore eventually resumed a relatively normal state of operations with restaurants open, but groups restricted to eight.

However in May 2021, new mutated variants had crept back in and clusters were identified among Changi Airport employees and healthcare workers at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, many of whom had already been vaccinated. The country faced stricter regulations as group size this month was reduced to five, then two, with restaurants and gyms shut and work from home mandated as a default. The country is calling the measures “Phase 2 Heightened Alert.”

Last night, the Ministry of Education announced school closures for primary and secondary schools and junior colleges. The closures begin Wednesday 19 May as the population shifts back to full-time home-based learning. ®

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