- The Federal Government’s COVIDSafe mobile app has come under recent fire from Labor MPs after failing to trace COVID-19 cases in Victoria and New South Wales effectively
- The app has reportedly not identified any COVID-19 contacts that were not found through manual tracing
- Still, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer said the app is a very useful tool for assisting in contact tracing
- It seems the issues from the app stem more from community downloads — or lack thereof — rather than functionality
- At roughly 6.6 million downloads, just over 26 per cent of the population has downloaded the app — a fair way down from the government’s 40 per cent target
- In Queensland and South Australia, health authorities have reported that nobody who tested positive for the virus had downloaded the app
- The Federal Government has not announced any plans of potentially scrapping the app, as the United Kingdom did with its own tracing app
Recent Labor criticism of the Federal Government’s COVIDSafe application has raised questions about how effective the tracing app really is.
Since the app was launched in late April, it has been downloaded roughly 6.6 million times. Of course, with the app being downloaded over two million times within one day of its launch, the months thereafter have shown a steady trickle of downloads after an initial surge.
Yesterday, Shadow Minister for Health Chris Bowen slammed the app as a “$2 million failure”, telling Nine News the app has played no role in effectively finding anybody who has been exposed to the virus.
Opposition frontbencher and former Prime Minister Bill Shorten shared similar sentiments, telling Nine’s Today Show Labor supported the app in principle, but it now looks like “an expensive dud”.
The criticism comes after health officials revealed the app has had a limited role in tracing cases of the virus in the midst of the fresh outbreak in Victoria. The state has re-entered Stage Three lockdowns in certain areas after recording 1969 new COVID-19 cases since the start of July.
Why is COVIDSafe not helping?
From a functionality point of view, the app seems to be working as intended. The app uses Bluetooth to look for other devices with the app installed then create a “digital handshake” with that device. The app records how close the devices were together and stores the contact for 21 days. If one of the users then tests positive for COVID-19, the app can notify every other device that was nearby in the 21-day window of the potential threat.
The app works much in the same way as the tracing apps developed by tech giants Google and Apple.
One of the issues with COVIDSafe, however, is that Bluetooth firstly needs to be enabled for the app to function, and the app needs to have been opened to run in the background. This means if a user forgets to open the app in the morning, or turns off their phone’s Bluetooth, the app is nullified. The app is designed to send a daily notification as a reminder to get it running, but this too can be turned off in settings or ignored.
Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt and Minister said in late May a Victorian who had not been identified through the normal process was notified as being a close contact to someone with the virus through the COVIDSafe app and went into subsequent quarantine.
Is seems, then, that the issues with the app stem from community downloads — or lack thereof — rather than functionality issues. The Morrison Government outlined a target of 40 per cent of the population for total downloads when the app was launched. At 6.6 million, this is just over 26 per cent.
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, said yesterday the app has been a “very useful tool” for when people are moving around a lot and standing next to strangers. So far, however, no contacts have been identified solely through the app. Moreover, the health officer said the app will be less useful during Stage Three restrictions wherein people are locked down once more for the most part.
In New South Wales, where there has been a new outbreak at a pub in Sydney’s south-west, the app hasn’t found any new contacts that couldn’t be found through manual tracing.
In Queensland and South Australia, health authorities reported that nobody diagnosed with the virus had downloaded the app, so its tracing capabilities were unused.
In Western Australia, there have been no community COVID-19 transmissions for several weeks, meaning the app is pointless; a good problem to have, to be sure, but not helpful when working out COVIDSafe’s efficacy.
Still, it seems the Federal Government has no plans to dump the app, as the U.K. did with its own tracing app. As downloads steadily increase, hope is still being pinned on COVIDSafe to help stem the new spread.