‘Dishonest’: COVIDSafe app has not detected a case despite 6 million downloads
By Ben Grubb
The federal government’s COVIDSafe app has not identified any close contacts of a person infected with coronavirus who had not already been found through manual contact tracing, despite being downloaded by more than 6 million Australians in two months.
As the number of infections soars in Victoria, Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick said the government was being dishonest about the effectiveness of the app, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison touted as “sunscreen” against major outbreaks and as the key to lifting restrictions.
Senator Patrick, who has an engineering background and was a project manager involved in rapid-prototyping and testing, said the government was refusing to concede the app “wasn’t working properly, if at all”.
“I think the Prime Minister and the government were dishonest with the Australian public and I think that’s very sad,” said the senator, a supporter of the app concept who himself was diagnosed with COVID-19.
The $2 million app — downloaded more than 6.44 million times and launched amid the height of the pandemic in Australia on April 26 — was built to help assist state and territory contact-tracing teams uncover close contacts of infected COVID-19 cases who may have been within 1.5 meters of them for more than 15 minutes in public places such as restaurants, cafés or shops.
But testing data provided to the Senate showed its effectiveness, particularly on Apple iPhones, remains an ongoing issue.
The testing data, released to the Senate’s select committee on COVID-19, shows when an iPhone is locked there remain issues with the app detecting another nearby iPhone user. Only 25 to 50 per cent of the time did it work on May 26 in locked iPhone-to-iPhone testing.
At launch, it was worse, working only 25 per cent of the time or less for locked iPhone to locked iPhone. When it was running in the background, the app also didn’t work well.
At the app’s launch, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert said: “To be effective, users should have the app running in the background when they are coming into contact with others. Your phone does not need to be unlocked for the app to work.”
Labor’s government services spokesman Bill Shorten accused the government of being “secretive” about the app’s dysfunction.
“The current app is clearly not working well enough and the government is being secretive about how often it has actually made a difference,” Mr Shorten said.
“COVIDSafe has had major problems from the start like not working properly on iPhones … After millions of taxpayers’ dollars have been spent, the app would want to start showing some proper results soon for it not to be added to the pile of Stuart Robert’s disasters.”
Mr Robert rejected the criticisms, saying the app was working effectively.
“The app was working at the time of launch – to say it wasn’t is incorrect,” a spokesman for Mr Robert said. “The Australian community can have confidence it is working securely and effectively, despite the lack of community transmission of COVID-19.”
Mr Shorten said consideration should now be given to whether Australia should follow Britain’s lead and switch to the Apple-Google contact exposure alert system, which most technology experts recommend as it is supported by both technology giants and was built with privacy in mind.
Mr Robert’s spokesman said the Digital Transformation Agency, the government department that helped build the app, and the federal Health Department were working with Apple and Google “to understand and test” the exposure notification framework since its release to see how it could be applied in Australia. “That testing is ongoing,” The spokesman said.
On the app’s launch day, 6696 Australians had coronavirus. Since then, a further 926 cases have been identified, many returned travellers. Of the 926, only 40 of those have had the COVIDSafe app and have allowed health officials to look at their close contact data.
Victoria had previously said it used the app to discover one contact who had not been identified by manual tracers. However, it is understood that person was subsequently ruled not to be a “close contact”.
On Wednesday, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said his contact tracers had downloaded the app’s data 30 times but had not identified anyone who wasn’t already uncovered through the manual interview process.
“There haven’t been new contacts identified through the use of the app,” Professor Sutton said.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed on Thursday that NSW health officials had downloaded people’s contact data from the app 10 times.
But the NSW Health Department confirmed on Saturday no contacts or cases had been identified using the app.
“As new cases in NSW have predominantly been in people in hotel quarantine recently, we have had limited opportunity to use the app during this time,” NSW Health said.