COVIDSafe app has ‘failed’ Victoria: Watts

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The federal government’s much-hyped COVIDSafe contact tracing app has “failed” Victoria and changes are needed urgently to ensure it works effectively in other states, according to the Opposition.

While supporting the concept of digital contact tracing through a smartphone app, Labor has become increasingly critical of the federal approach with COVIDSafe, with a number of shadow ministers calling for the Google and Apple framework to be adopted to overcome performance issues on iPhones.

The Opposition ramped up its attack on the app on Monday, with shadow assistant minister for cybersecurity Tim Watts saying it had failed Victorians, and shadow health minister Chris Bowen saying it is just not working.

COVIDSafe is yet to pick up any new close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases that have not already been told to manual contact tracers. This is despite a sharp uptick of cases in the state, and growing numbers of “mystery cases” that cannot be traced back to an outbreak.

COVIDSafe: The app has not been as successful as hoped. Photo: Adam Calaitzis/Shutterstock

These are the exact cases where COVIDSafe is meant to step in to help identify random individuals a case came into contact with, but it is yet to effectively do this in Victoria.

The app was much touted by the Coalition, with Prime Minister Scott Morrision labelling it the “ticket” to getting out of the first lockdown and comparing using it to putting on sunblock when going outside.

But Mr Watts said it is now clear that Mr Morrison has “sold Australians a pup”.

“He told Australians that the app was our ‘ticket out’ of restrictions because it would let public health authorities track COVID-19 infections from unknown sources. He said it would protect us like sunscreen. But it’s just not working,” Mr Watts said in a Facebook post on Monday morning.

“It’s the ‘mystery cases’ – COVID-19 infections without an identifiable source – that are now the biggest cause of concern in Melbourne and the COVIDSafe app has simply not been able to perform the role that it was designed to do.”

“Australians did their bit – Scott Morrison said enough Australians downloaded the app to meet the government’s take up targets. But Scott Morrison spent too much time marketing the app and not enough time making sure that it worked.

“[He] needs to stop the spin and fix the app. Scott Morrison’s COVIDSafe app has failed Victoria, but it’s not too late for him to fix the app so that it can be of use in New South Wales and Queensland.”

Mr Bowen continued the attack later in the day, calling on government to admit the app isn’t working.

“The first key element to fixing it is to admit there’s a problem. You’ve had Victoria slammed into a very harsh lockdown partly because contact tracing is so difficult and there are thousands of people working on that, and they deserve to have the app working to help them,” Mr Bowen told the media.

“We supported the concept of the app, we encouraged Australians to download it. It’s simply not playing the role as it should. The first step to fixing that is for the government to accept it hasn’t worked as well as it should. Right across Australia the app needs to work. It just has to be called out, it’s not working as well as it should or could.”

There has been some reported success from the app in New South Wales, with the first new close contact found via COVIDSafe last month, and the technology used to identify a “previously unrecognised exposure data” from a known venue in the state, according to the health department.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth tweeted over the weekend that COVIDSafe has found 540 contacts in New South Wales, but this likely refers to all cases found by the app, not new ones that couldn’t be identified without it.

The Digital Transformation Agency, which led the development of the app, is now on the hunt for more private contractors to continue working on it, with two new listings on its Digital Marketplace.

Contractors, including the Boston Consulting Group and AWS, were paid neary $2.75 million for early work on the app.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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