With contact tracers struggling to track the Delta variant spreading in Sydney, many are wondering what happened to the app that built for that very purpose.
This morning, MP Julian Hill asked why the COVIDSafe App wasn’t being used to trace people in Sydney. With 89 new cases discovered today, with 75 of those cases linked to previous positive tests, it’s a decent question to ask. There has been a litany of problems with the government’s app, leading many to question what happened to the millions of taxpayer dollars spent on it, and whether they plan to fix the long-standing issues with the service
There were initial concerns about the collection and use of data and privacy, and given the great failure that was the 2016 online Census and the widescale privacy breaches associated with My Health Record, these concerns certainly continue.
Then there were the hoax messages that the Australian Federal Police were called to investigate after many users reported receiving a text when they were further than 20 kilometres from home.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that an early version of the app accidentally informed several users that they had ‘tested positive for Covid-19’, causing members of the public to attend testing clinics in an anxious and distressed state, only to find out the app’s information was totally incorrect.
Other documents show that the government was aware in early May 2020 of a range of issues with the Bluetooth beacons, which are used in the app to record close contacts. These beacons were also interfering with other applications, including glucose monitors for people with diabetes.
As James Purtill of The ABC revealed, the app has not been updated to incorporate the incredibly infectious delta variant, the same that now has Sydney contact tracers struggling to keep up. The WHO has described the variant as the “fittest and fastest” coronavirus strain and experts say it’s “twice as contagious as the original virus”. As Purtill wrote, “COVIDSafe has been giving state and territory public health officials access to contact information from COVIDSafe users who have been within 1.5 metres of each other for a period of 15 minutes or more. These parameters have not changed despite the emergence of the more infectious Delta variant, a Department of Health spokesperson confirmed.”
“If the medical experts believe that a shorter timeframe for a close contact should be considered, then the government will look at that in consultation with the states and territories,” they said.
Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist at UNSW and advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO), said Delta made COVIDSafe’s 15-minute window “very useless”.
The variant, which has been in Australia since May and is now the dominant strain worldwide, can be transmitted by “fleeting exposure”.
“You just have to walk past someone,” Professor McLaws said.
Despite this, the Federal Government has maintained that the app has been widely successful, and around 7 million people have downloaded it, meeting the original target of 40% of the population.
Yet as researchers from the University of Melbourne have pointed out, “…by May last year, only 44% of those surveyed had actually downloaded it. Plenty on social media are now saying they’ve all but abandoned COVIDSafe in favour of the QR code check-ins done via, for example, the Victorian government app or the Service NSW app. And when Victoria’s health minister Martin Foley was asked this week whether the COVIDSafe app had been used in responding to the latest outbreak, he said: ‘No. Not to my knowledge, and I’m sure in such a rare event it would have been brought to my attention’.”
Last month, former Labor leader Bill Shorten totted up the cost to the taxpayer, estimating that the program has cost $7,753,863, suggesting that the program will continue to cost $100,000 a month to maintain.
In October last year, AAP took a sterner tone, believing that the app cost the taxpayer a million dollars per each case the app discovered. “$5.2 million has been spent on operational costs and almost $7 million on advertising, taking the total price tag to roughly $16 million. The app has only helped find 17 contacts not found by manual tracers,” they wrote.
A policy paper from the Auckland University of Technology, the University of Queensland, the University of Auckland and Massey University, released in June, CovidSafe is unlikely to help prevent the spread of the virus because its effectiveness is “extremely limited.”
So far, this appears to ring true. Despite what appears to be a handful of small ‘wins’, the app seems to be yet another example of a government-led national technology implementation that has nowhere near lived up to expectations.