Coronavirus Government Global Briefing: May 5

By Chris Woods

Tuesday May 5, 2020

Welcome to Coronavirus Government Global Briefing, Mandarin Premium’s morning update on everything in local and global government responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Tracking complaints against COVIDSafe

Prior to the announcement of COVIDSafe, we heard criticisms from Melbourne computing experts that Singapore’s original TraceTogether platform does not sufficiently protect privacy or create oversight from the “Central Authority”.

While the government would go on to accept all recommendations from the Privacy Impact Assessment, digital rights groups responded to the app’s launch with a call for greater transparency around source code and operating system, greater oversight, and clarity over legislative issues i.e. whether existing data laws could override a protection against police access.

Canberra’s changed

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Last week, an ABC investigation warned that the use of Amazon servers puts Australian data at risk of American subpoena’s, while another report unveiled that, even at over 4 million downloads, state and territory health agencies did not yet have access to the data.

Now, even assuming peak functionality and privacy protections, it’s worth asking just how effective, or potentially dangerous a working contact tracing app could be. In a new report on this subject, the Brookings Institute warns against the “lure of automating the painstaking process of contact tracing”:

“…to date, no one has demonstrated that it’s possible to do so reliably despite numerous concurrent attempts. Apps that notify participants of disclosure could, on the margins and in the right conditions, help direct testing resources to those at higher risk. Anything else strikes us as implausible at best, and dangerous at worst.”

On the dangers of false positives, false negatives and false security

In an analysis of the Brookings Institute’s report within the Australian context, ZDnet unpacks what, at first, should seem obvious: the app is not a substitute for investigative contact tracing, and treating it as anything but risks false positives, false negatives, and a false sense of security.

First and foremost, a functioning app will invariably create alerts where people are technically within a 1.5 metre radius of an infected person but are otherwise protected by walls, PPE, or simply good luck.

As The Brookings Institute explains, repeated false positives could ultimately lead people to ignore alerts:

“A person may put up with this once or twice, but after a few false alarms and the ensuing inconvenience of protracted self-isolation, we expect many will start to disregard the warnings.”

Then there’s the opposite scenario, where missed interactions create “false negatives”

“Digital handshakes” will only be logged between users who have a functioning, activated version of COVIDSafe that meet within 1.5 metres of each other for over 15 minutes.

ZDnet notes that the app therefore cannot pick up “potential infection paths such as random unrelated people buying a takeaway muffin from the same cafe across several days, taking moments to do so.”

“It won’t notice you sliding your hand along a dirty handrail… People might leave their phones in their car, or the app might just fail. And it’s not like the 1.5 metres for 15 minutes rule is magic. Even the most fleeting encounter can be unlucky.”

Even if every single person in Australia downloaded and activated the app, the potential for false negatives could become actively dangerous if, as per automation bias, people begin to trust the “magic of technology” over their own judgement or official health advice.

As writer Stilgherrian later argues, the government’s aggressive marketing campaign risks obscuring the nuance around both scenarios and creating a false sense of security.

“Even the name of the app, COVIDSafe, implies that it will in fact make you safe. It won’t. It can’t. There’s a reason the HIV/AIDS public health community has spent more than three decades talking about ‘safer sex’ not ‘safe sex’.”

For a global comparison, ZDnet also reports that India has ordered the mandatory use of their COVID-19 contact tracing app, called Aarogya Setu, for all workers.

USA wrap

  • A four-page Department of Homeland Security intelligence report dated May 1 links China’s early suppression of information around the pandemic with their increased imports of medical supplies, although, as ABC reports, there is no public evidence to link the two.
  • Despite denials from the The Wuhan Institute of Virology, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo believes there is “a significant amount of evidence” that COVID-19 came from a Wuhan lab, although he agreed with US intelligence agencies declaring that the virus was not human-made (ABC).
  • A Vice-President at Amazon, Tim Bray, has announced on his personal website after he has “quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19”.
  • As US Today reports, Carnival Cruise Line will resume eight of its North American cruise services starting 1 August.

New Zealand legislates for visa security

While Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is set to speak with the national cabinet today about a potential trans-Tasman bubble, the New Zealand government will introduce a separate bill to temporarily amend immigration legislation and support migrants who are unable to leave the country during the pandemic.

The Immigration (COVID-19 Response) Amendment Bill will introduce eight time-limited powers to:

  • impose, vary or cancel conditions for classes of temporary entry class visa holders
  • vary or cancel conditions for classes of resident class visa holders
  • extend the expiry dates of visas for classes of people
  • grant visas to individuals and classes of people in the absence of an application
  • waive any regulatory requirements for certain classes of application
  • waive the requirement to obtain a transit visa
  • suspend the ability to make applications for visas or submit expressions of interest in applying for visas by classes of people
  • revoke the entry permission of people who arrive either on private aircraft or marine vessels (to align them with people who arrive on commercial flights, who can already be refused entry).

Minister of Immigration Iain Lees-Galloway noted that the powers, which will reportedly include some safeguards and expire 12 months after enactment, “were introduced at a time when New Zealand had much lower numbers of temporary migrants.

“We are finding now that the existing settings are not enough to respond appropriately where, for example, large numbers of visas need to be changed or extended at once.”

While Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton already has immense ministerial discretion over visa matters — see Crikey’s explainer yesterday on how the department enabled the New Zealand Warriors NRL team, or Liberty Victoria’s ‘Playing God: The Immigration Minister’s Unrestrained Powers’ for a legal overview of the “god powers” — the Australian government has been petitioned by over 180 community organisations to extend COVID-19 support to people seeking asylum on bridging visas and people on temporary visa holders, including refugees, temporary migrant workers and international students.

The campaign calls for both economic, health and visa support, including:

  1. Ensuring all people have access to medical treatment and Medicare for people seeking asylum
  2. Ensuring all people have a financial safety net so they are not forced into destitution:
    1. Extend JobSeeker to people on bridging visas currently ineligible for income support
    2. Extend JobKeeper to temporary visa holders so that businesses employing them can continue to operate
    3. Remove penalties for Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) holders accessing Special Benefit in light of the pandemic and remove restrictions on accessing Special Benefit for Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or SHEV holders who are studying
  3. Preventing people from losing legal status and access to support

Finally, for a global contrast, Portugal announced in early April that migrants and asylum seekers would be treated as permanent citizens until at least July 1; conversely, Malaysia detained hundreds of undocumented migrants over the weekend, and yesterday announced that all migrant workers will have to be tested by their employer as restrictions begin to ease.

On the home front: NSW prepares for post COVID-19 nightlife as lockdowns claim Carriageworks

As part of the second stage of their 24-hour economy liquor law reforms, the New South Wales state government has called for community feedback on a plan to to “kick start Sydney’s night time economy post COVID-19 and beyond”.

Proposals for the draft Liquor Amendment (24-hour Economy) Bill 2020 include:

  • a new incentives and sanctions system with ongoing fee discounts for licensed venues that maintain a clear record
  • removal of outdated live music restrictions
  • allow small bars to offer more family friendly services to customers, by permitting minors in certain circumstances
  • reducing red tape by aligning liquor licensing and planning processes
  • enhancing same day alcohol delivery regulations.

Consultation feedback is due by 14 June 2020, while the bill is expected to be introduced to parliament in the second half of 2020.

The news, as ABC reports, comes as Sydney cultural icon Carriageworks is forced to call on administrators after the sudden cancellation of six months’ of activities caused an “irreparable loss of income”. Unlike Victoria last month or South Australia and Tasmania back in March, NSW is yet to announce a targeted arts package.

Queensland announces school schedule

As state and territories pursue different plans to reopen schools — check out the ABC for a state-by-state guide — the Queensland government yesterday unveiled “steps to full resumption of school”:

  • May 11: Kindy, Prep, Years 1, 11 and 12 return to school
  • May 15: Assess state-wide response to easing of restrictions
  • May 25: Proposed re-opening to remaining students in remaining grades

Additionally, social distancing measures to protect adults at schools will include:

  • Staff and students who are unwell must not attend school
  • All adults must maintain social distancing of 1.5 metres
  • Adults must not gather in groups in and around school grounds, car parks, school gates and outside classrooms
  • Parents should use stop, drop and go options rather than walking children into school grounds
  • Strict personal hygiene protocols, including the cleaning of high touch surfaces such as desks and door handles, will remain in place.

In other state updates, the NSW government has now purchased almost $1 billion of PPE, Victoria tested more than 55,000 samples in the first week of their testing blitz, and the first tranche of South Australia’s $10,000 emergency cash grants have begun to flow to small businesses.

For health department updates: Federal, NSW, Victoria, QueenslandACTSouth AustraliaTasmaniaNorthern Territory and Western Australia.

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