The federal government’s much-heralded COVIDSafe app is not even being used in New South Wales during the latest outbreak and is yet to identify any new close contacts this year.
NSW recorded 89 new local cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday after recording 116 on Monday. There have been more than 750 cases as part of the latest outbreak, which began last month.
NSW health authorities are now managing thousands of close contacts who have been identified manually by contact tracers.
But the federal government’s contact tracing app COVIDSafe is not even being used by the health authorities, with no information from confirmed cases sent to the national database, let alone any new close contacts identified.
“Experience to date in NSW has shown that the COVIDSafe app may be most useful where case interviews have not been successful in identifying contacts. It has not been necessary to use the COVIDSafe app with any recent cases in NSW in 2021,” a NSW Health spokesperson told InnovationAus.
“NSW Health works with each case to reconstruct their movements and who they may have come into contact with, aided by a range of sources of information including venue data collected by the Service NSW app, reward card data, membership cards, and in some cases, credit card reports.”
COVIDSafe also wasn’t used at all during Victoria’s recent COVID-19 outbreak, with health minister Martin Foley saying he would have heard about its use because it would have been “such a rare occurrence”.
The federal government launched COVIDSafe in April last year with much fanfare. The app, which uses bluetooth technology to log close contacts between users, was placed at the centre of the Coalition’s push to reopen the country following the first national lockdown in early 2020, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison comparing its use with putting on sunscreen.
But COVIDSafe has only identified 17 new close contacts that weren’t already picked up by manual contact tracers. The government now says that it has found 561 close contacts, but this includes 544 people identified by manual contact tracers after COVIDSafe was used to identify a new exposure time at a NSW venue.
All of these 17 cases it has picked up have been in NSW.
Private contractors were paid nearly $10 million for work on developing COVIDSafe, and the app is still costing $60,000 per month to run.
Recently, Shine Solutions was awarded a further $265,000 to continue its work on the app for another month, with the contract now worth $1.4 million over 12 months.
Under legislation passed to enshrine privacy protections around COVIDSafe, the health minister is required to produce six-monthly reports on the operation and effectiveness of the app and the national database.
But despite the app now running for about 15 months, the government is yet to produce the first of these reports.
The legislation requires this report to be tabled in Parliament within 15 sittings days of its completion, and for it to be completed “as soon as practicable after the end of each six month period”.
The end of this first six month period was in October, nearly eight months ago.
The government paid ABT Associates nearly $250,000 last year to evaluate the operation and effectiveness of COVIDSafe for this report, with the contract coming to an end in December. But this report has still not been released publicly.
The Health Department previously said the report would be tabled during the winter sittings of Parliament, but now says that it is “expected” in the second half of the year.
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