The federal government updated its $10 million COVIDSafe contact tracing app for the Delta variant in mid-October, more than five months after the more transmissible virus was first detected in Australia.
While the first case of the Delta variant of COVID-19 was detected in Sydney in early May, and further cases found in June which led to significant lockdowns across the country, the much-heralded COVIDSafe was only updated to account for this in mid-October.
This is despite the federal government consulting with the states about these changes as earlier as July.
The change saw the algorithm underpinning COVIDSafe altered to allow for close contact between users for as short as one minute to be sent to state and territory health departments, down from the previous 15 minute time limit.
This was done to account for the fact the Delta variant is far more transmissible than previous versions of the virus, and casual contact transmission had been discovered.
The health department worked with state and territory health authorities on this update, which allowed it to “better reflect the highly transmissible nature of the Delta variant of COVID-19”.
The update was revealed in the Department of Health’s second report on the operation and effectiveness of COVIDSafe and the National COVIDSafe Data Store, tabled last week.
The 12-page report reveals that the controversial app has detected only two potential close contacts since mid-May, despite this period covering the most significant COVID outbreaks in Australia across the entire pandemic, sending New South Wales and Victoria into protracted lockdowns.
From 16 May to 15 November 2021 13 COVIDSafe users tested positive for COVID-19 and consented to have their data uploaded to the national store. From this, 331 digital handshakes were revealed, identifying two potential close contacts from nine encounters.
By 15 November 2021 there had been a total of more than 190,000 COVID-19 cases in Australia.
Last year COVIDSafe identified only 17 close contacts who weren’t already found by manual contact tracers. It’s unclear whether the two further close contacts identified this year were also found by the manual contact tracers.
In the time period covered by the report, 345,000 Australians registered on COVIDSafe. The report does not reveal how many people are actively using the app.
“COVIDSafe remains part of the suite of tools available for public health officials to use in contact tracing. COVIDSafe has made a positive contribution to identifying and verifying COVID-19 contacts and, in combination with other tools, plays a role in supporting contact tracing processes by jurisdictions,” the report said.
Responsibility for the COVIDSafe app was transferred from the Digital Transformation Agency to the Department of Health earlier this year.
A report by independent consultancy Abt Associates, released earlier this year, found that COVIDSafe was ineffective in “very high-risk settings” and was wasting the time of state health authorities.
It is costing the Commonwealth around $60,000 per month to continue running COVIDSafe, which cost nearly $10 million in consultancy fees to develop.
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