More than 4.2m people using TraceTogether, token distribution to resume soon: Lawrence Wong

About 78 per cent of residents here are now using the TraceTogether token or app. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - More than 4.2 million people, or about 78 per cent of residents here, are now using the TraceTogether token or app, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong on Monday (Jan 4).

Of these people, about two million use only the app on their phone. But there has been strong demand for the tokens, and community centres that had run out of them are set to resume distribution soon, he added.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, was responding to MPs' questions about the TraceTogether programme in his ministerial statement in Parliament.

The distribution of tokens started in September at 38 community centres, but demand spiked after the Government announced that TraceTogether would be made mandatory to enter places such as restaurants and shopping malls, and some venues ran out of stocks minutes after collection started.

Mr Wong said the Government had initially not expected such a strong demand for the tokens given that people can download the app.

He also said there were some delays in the manufacturing schedule, and as such the distribution of tokens could not be completed across all the community centres.

Announcing that the distribution will resume soon, he reiterated that after all those who need a token has one, people will be required to use TraceTogether at all SafeEntry checkpoints either via the token or the app.

"We will give further information on this once the details and timelines are firmed up, and will provide adequate advance notice to all the affected establishments, so they can gear up and prepare," he said.

He added that the tokens will be distributed to school students who have not yet collected them.

He said the TraceTogether and SafeEntry Programme will continue to be a key part of Singapore's contact tracing operations even as the country moves into phase three.

Before TraceTogether was introduced, it took two days for contact tracers to interview an infected person and establish all his close contacts before they could get in touch with these contacts and put them on quarantine.

Mr Wong said this is now done in a matter of hours as the contact tracers can rely on the TraceTogether data to identify close contacts of Covid-19 patients.

He added that the Government has spent around $10 million to date on developing both the TraceTogether app and SafeEntry system.

Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) had asked if the cost is justified, and Mr Wong said: "The results speak for themselves - TraceTogether has stopped the transmission of the virus in many instances, and has helped save many lives. So I have no doubt about the cost-effectiveness of this programme."

He added that the Government remains mindful of the need to ensure value for money.

One of the ways it has kept down costs is to design tokens using off-the-shelf components where possible to minimise manufacturing complexity, time and costs, but this has also meant that the TraceTogether tokens are not rechargeable.

During Monday's Parliament sitting, Mr Christopher De Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) had also asked if data collected under the TraceTogether programme will be used for criminal investigations.

To this, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said that while TraceTogether was conceived and implemented for contact tracing to fight Covid-19, the measures put in place to protect the data do not preclude its use for criminal investigations for the purposes of ensuring the safety and security of citizens.

He added that for the purposes of criminal investigations, data collected by TraceTogether is treated like any other data, and the Singapore Police Force is empowered under the Criminal Procedure Code to obtain it for their investigations.

He said, though, that the Government, as the custodian of the TraceTogether data, has put in place stringent measures to safeguard the data, such as allowing only authorised officers to access the data, using it only for authorised purposes and storing it on secured servers.

Under the Public Sector (Governance) Act, public officers who recklessly or knowingly disclose the data without authorisation or misuse the data may also be liable of a fine up to $5,000 or imprisonment of up to two years, or both, he added.

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