The federal Health department has stood by COVIDSafe at a Senate hearing, despite confirming it was yet to identify a new close contact in Victoria, where contact tracers stopped using the app entirely for a week during the outbreak of the state’s second wave of COVID-19.
The Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 briefly turned its attention to COVIDSafe on Friday morning, with senators searching for answers as to why the app appears to have been little help to the Australian state worst hit by the virus.
Health department officials also revealed that there would soon be better reporting on the use of COVIDSafe around the country in order to meet “community expectations”.
COVIDSafe had been of “limited use” in Victoria due to the way contact tracing is conducted in the state, Health department associate secretary Carolyn Edwards said at the hearing, and officials stopped using it entirely for about a week as cases started to grow.
“As they geared up, they lost the momentum to use the app and for a short period were no longer asking the question at the interview if they had the app. That has now been rectified,” Ms Edwards said.
Ms Edwards said the app’s lack of effectiveness in Victoria is due to how contact tracing is conducted in the state.
“It has had limited use in Victoria for reasons we are working through with Victoria in relation to the way they do their contact tracing. It’s available to Victoria, and we’ve been offering and delivering training to officers in Victoria and we are now getting additional activity in using the app,” she said.
“To date, they haven’t used it yet to the greatest extent we would like…it hasn’t been a major player in identifying contacts in Victoria.”
Greens leader Richard Di Natale said the app had been a “failure” in Victoria.
“When we needed it in Victoria it failed us. I think that’s inarguable, and this is coming from someone who downloaded the app,” Senator Di Natale said.
“It was touted as a solution, the Prime Minister argued we needed it, but when we needed it during a time when the epidemic was at its worst, it hasn’t been of any assistance.”
In response, Ms Edwards denied that the app has failed, and said it has had success across the border in New South Wales.
“I wouldn’t categorise it as a failure, that suggests there’s no use persevering and that’s absolutely not the case. And as Victoria stabilises it will have increasing impact. We stand by it as being an important tool,” she said.
Health secretary Brendan Murphy, who last week revealed that Victoria had briefly stopped using the app, said COVIDSafe had been of “incredible use” in New South Wales.
“Victoria tried to use it early in the outbreak when it was mainly family transmission. They found it wasn’t of great use at that time, they stopped using it, and they are now using it,” Professor Murphy told the hearing.
It has been claimed by government ministers that COVIDSafe picked up more than 500 new close contacts as part of a cluster in Western Sydney. But Health officials confirmed that COVIDSafe had identified a new case at a pub where a confirmed case of COVID-19 had visited, and manual contact tracing was then used to identify the hundreds of close contacts.
The most recent figures provided by the NSW government show that 14 unique close contacts have been identified by COVIDSafe.
Due to the “extreme privacy requirements”, there are no rules for how state government’s report on their use of COVIDSafe, Ms Edwards said, with New South Wales now leading a new program to get more regular updates “in a way that least burdens the contact tracing program”.