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Govt to launch enhanced digital tracing tool, promises privacy

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President Cyril Ramaphosa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Government will soon announce enhanced digital tracing efforts as a key tool to track and fight the spread of COVID-19.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Saturday announced the country will from midnight on Monday move to level two lockdown and digital solutions will now anchor government efforts to combat the spread of the deadly virus.

Digital contact tracing has been widely used globally as a way of fighting the spread of infectious disease and the South African government will soon be scaling up this by introducing a mobile application, according to Ramaphosa.

Over 500 000 South Africans have been infected, and public health experts say contact tracing is needed to contain the virus.

The role of contact tracing is to call each person who has tested positive and track down their contacts to inform them of their risk so they can self-quarantine.

“In addition to manual contact tracing and the national WhatsApp channel, a mobile application will be used to notify contacts more quickly while preserving their privacy and anonymity,” said Ramaphosa.

“We will also strengthen our efforts to enforce health and safety measures in the workplace, in retail stores and public transport, to protect workers and commuters, and create a safe environment for businesses to operate.

“While this crisis has brought us together as a nation, united against a common threat, it has also brought out some of the worst tendencies in our society.”

Last month, government tweaked COVID-19 track and trace laws. The changes to the COVID-19 database information were welcomed by some legal experts, who said it indicated the importance placed on the protection of the public’s right to privacy and the obligation on responsible parties to process personal information lawfully.

On Saturday, Ramaphosa also said government had requested director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus to send experts to South Africa to bolster efforts against the coronavirus.

“We deeply welcome the support from the WHO, which has brought 43 experts to South Africa to assist our hard-working health professionals to help us fight this epidemic. They are already providing help with regard to epidemiological analysis, infection control, incident management and community engagement.”

Explaining the decision to move to alert level two lockdown, the president said this was guided by the advice of health experts as well as consultations with provincial and local government.

He said alert level two in terms of government’s risk-adjusted strategy in dealing with COVID-19 means there is a moderate spread of the virus, with a relatively high health system readiness.

“The move to level two means we can remove nearly all of the restrictions on the resumption of economic activity across most industries. Economic activity will be allowed with the necessary and appropriate stringent health protocols and safety precautions in place,” said the president.

Under level two, all restrictions on inter-provincial travel will be lifted, while accommodation, hospitality venues and tours will be permitted according to approved protocols to ensure social distancing.

Restaurants, bars and taverns will be permitted to operate according to approved protocols as to times of operation and numbers of people.

Additionally, restrictions on the sale of tobacco will be lifted as well as the suspension of the sale of alcohol. Alcohol will be permitted for on-site consumption in licensed establishments only up until 10pm. Liquor outlets will be allowed to sell alcohol for off-site consumption from Monday to Thursday during the hours of 9am to 5pm only.

Ramaphosa added: “Restrictions on family and social visits will also be lifted, although everyone is urged to exercise extreme caution and undertake such visits only if necessary. Infections have been known to take place during family visits, endangering family members and sometimes leading to the deaths of some family members.”

He emphasised that social distancing should be observed, masks should continue to be worn and special care should be taken to protect the elderly and people with underlying conditions.

“Familiarity with each other should not allow us to forget these precautions. As we ease restrictions, it is necessary that some measures remain in place to limit transmission and protect our health capacity.”

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