NEW DELHI: Homeless people stand in queue to get food during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in New Delhi. - AFP

NEW DELHI: India has mandated that all public and private sector employees use a government-backed Bluetooth tracing app and maintain social distancing in offices as New Delhi begins easing some of its lockdown measures in lower-risk areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government said India - the country with the largest number of people in lockdown - would extends its nationwide control measures for another two weeks from Monday to battle the spread of the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness, but allow "considerable relaxations" in lower-risk districts.

As part of its efforts to fight the deadly virus, India last month launched the app Aarogya Setu - meaning Health Bridge - a Bluetooth and GPS-based system developed by the country's National Informatics Centre. The app alerts users who may have come in contact with people later found to be positive for COVID-19 or deemed to be at high risk. "Use of Aarogya Setu shall be made mandatory for all employees, both private and public," India's Ministry of Home Affairs said in a notification late on Friday.

It will the responsibility of the heads of companies and organizations "to ensure 100% coverage of this app among the employees," the ministry said. Officials at India's technology ministry and a lawyer who framed the privacy policy for Aarogya Setu told Reuters the app needs to be on at least 200 million phones for it to be effective in the country of 1.3 billion people. The app has been downloaded around 50 million times on Android phones, which dominate India's smartphone user base of 500 million, according to Google Play Store data.

The app's compulsory use is raising concerns among privacy advocates, who say it is unclear how the data will be used and who stress that India lacks privacy laws to govern the app. "Such a move should be backed by a dedicated law which provides strong data protection cover and is under the oversight of an independent body," said Udbhav Tiwari, Public Policy Advisor for internet company Mozilla. New Delhi has said the app will not infringe on privacy as all data is collected anonymously.

The app can help authorities identify virus hotspots and better-target health efforts, the tech ministry told Reuters in late April, adding that information on the app is used "only for administering necessary medical interventions". On Friday, the government said that offices re-opening will also have to implement measures like gaps between shifts and staggered lunch breaks to contain spread of the coronavirus that has infected 3.3 million worldwide and caused more than 230,000 deaths. India has reported over 37,000 cases and 1,218 deaths from the virus.

India extends lockdown
The world's biggest coronavirus lockdown will be extended for two weeks beyond May 4, the Indian government said Friday but with some easing of restrictions-including for alcohol. The lockdown imposed near the end of March has caused misery for millions of workers in India's vast informal sector and dealt a major blow to Asia's third-biggest economy.

The home ministry said in a statement that in view of "significant gains in the COVID-19 situation", areas with few or no cases would see "considerable relaxations". Air travel and passenger trains ground to a halt because of the lockdown and only the transport of "essential goods" was allowed, causing major problems as well as considerable confusion for industry and agriculture.

In particular hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers were left jobless overnight, prompting a huge exodus of people back to their home villages, many on foot, and leaving many dependent on handouts. However the stringent restrictions have been credited with keeping confirmed cases of coronavirus to about 35,000 cases as of Friday, with 1,152 deaths.

But some experts have said the vast country of 1.3 billion, home to some of the most congested cities in the world where "social distancing" is virtually impossible, is not testing enough. In addition, there are concerns that if the virus catches hold in a big way, India's health care system-poorly funded by international comparison-will be severely stretched.

Red, orange and green zones
The government said Friday that many activities will remain prohibited nationwide including air and rail travel-except for "select purposes"-schools, restaurants and large gatherings such as places of worship. Restrictions are being lifted largely according to what color an area has been assigned in a government rating system.

India is split into red zones with "significant risk of spread of the infection"; green zones with zero cases or no confirmed cases in the past 21 days; and those in between as orange. This reflects a high concentration of cases in many urban areas such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad but very few or none in many rural areas of the country.

Red and orange zones will continue to have intensified contact tracing, house-to-house surveillance, and no movement in or out except for medical emergencies and the supply of essential goods and services, the home ministry statement said. Authorities have also been told to ensure in these areas "100 percent coverage" of the government tracing app Aarogya Setu, which has been criticized for potential security flaws and practical drawbacks and which has alarmed privacy campaigners.

Exceptions in red zones include certain industrial activities and government offices, and in rural zones designated as red, agricultural activities and brick kilns. In orange zones taxis are allowed as well as private cars and motorbikes conducting permitted activities with limited passenger numbers. In green zones all activities are permitted except those banned nationally. - Agencies