No useful information has been provided by COVIDSafe since it was launched more than six weeks ago, with health departments around the country having “limited opportunity” to utilise the COVID-19 contact tracing app.
Fewer than 30 people diagnosed with COVID-19 in Australia since COVIDSafe was launched had the app downloaded on their phones, and it’s understood none of these had close contact with anyone through the app who they weren’t already able to identify, such as family members.
During this time, 600 people were diagnosed with COVID-19 in Australia.
It had been reported last month that Victoria had become the first state to use the app to identify a new close contact, but a further investigation found that this person did not meet the criteria to be contacted by health authorities.
The lack of use of COVIDSafe is unsurprising given the low number of COVID-19 cases in Australia currently and the app will likely be more effective if there are new clusters or a second wave of the virus.
But it does call into question the federal government saying downloading of the app was one of the main keys to ease social restrictions.
The contact tracing app, which uses Bluetooth technology to record contacts between users, was launched in May.
The federal government, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, positioned the app as a pivotal piece in the country moving to ease strict social restrictions due to the ongoing pandemic, saying high download numbers were required to do this.
Mr Morrison likened using the app to putting on sunscreen when going outside, and early versions included a shield as the logo.
The government initially claimed to have a 40 per cent download target for the app, but this was later revealed to not be based on any evidence and was not being used by the health department.
But several weeks after social restrictions have been eased across the country, COVIDSafe has not been used to successfully identify any close contacts of users diagnosed with the virus.
State authorities have accessed data from the app on about 30 occasions, with no new contacts identified through this process.
COVIDSafe will likely become more useful as restrictions are eased further and Australians return to some normalcy, provided people are still using the app correctly and have Bluetooth turned on.
COVIDSafe’s main function is to find others that someone diagnosed with COVID-19 has come into contact with that they can’t identify to state and territory contact tracers – mainly random people they happen to have prolonged contact with throughout the course of a day, such as on public transport or in a restaurant.
The app records contact between users, with this data stored on individual devices in an encrypted device. If a user is later diagnosed with COVID-19, they can give consent for this data to be uploaded to the federal government’s national database, which then sifts through the contacts and picks out those closer than 1.5 metres lasting for at least 15 minutes.
This data is then sent to the relevant state or territory health authorities conducting manual contact tracing on the confirmed case.
A spokesperson for the federal Health department said the app is still a critical part of Australia’s coronavirus response.
“The COVIDSafe app continues to be a key part of our key public health requirements to ease restrictions safely. Australia is in a fortunate position with so few cases across the country, including returning travellers who would not have the app or contacts within the community, and we hope this continues,” the spokesperson said.
“In Victoria, a person who had not been identified through the normal contact tracing processes was notified as being a close contact by the app. This is evidence that the app is working and achieving the desired outcomes of assisting our health officials to stop the spread of the virus.”
But this person identified by COVIDSafe in Victoria last month, touted as being the first time this had happened anywhere in the country, was later determined by state health authorities to not meet the criteria for being a close contact.
In Victoria, 21 people diagnosed with COVID-19 had the app installed on the phone, but no additional close contacts were identified beyond those already listed by the individual with the virus.
“Victorian public health officials have begun using the new COVIDSafe app to help find close contacts of people who have tested positive. With only a small number of cases being reported each day in Victoria, there have been few opportunities to use the app so far – and we hope this continues,” a Victorian Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson said.
“We urge Victorians to download the app to augment our contact tracing tools to stop the spread of the virus. This will be increasingly important as restrictions are eased further and people are more mobile.”
New South Wales health authorities have had “limited opportunity” to use the app so far, with data from it accessed less than 10 times. The health department did not reveal whether any new contacts were found through this data.
“The app compliments the rigorous system of contact tracing undertaken by expert teams of 150 people across NSW Health. Members of a contact tracing team can, and have, accessed app data using strict privacy rules. So far, data has been accessed fewer than 10 times,” a NSW Health spokesperson said.
Health authorities in South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory have not accessed data from the app at all as no-one diagnosed with the virus in these areas had the service installed.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly this week said COVIDSafe was especially useful following large-scale events such as the Black Lives Matter protests around the country over the weekend.
“The COVIDSafe app would be absolutely critical and crucial in this type of setting. It’s exactly what it is designed to do, to pick up cases when you don’t know the people around you,” Professor Kelly told the media this week.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know how many people that were at the protest that might have had the COVIDSafe app on their phone and so it would rely on that.”
“We’ve had a very good uptake of the COVIDSafe app, but the majority of people that have mobile phones have not downloaded the app so far. So, I certainly would encourage people to reconsider that because this is exactly how it would be helpful.”
The federal government has mostly gone silent on the app in recent weeks. Prime Minister Scott Morrison hasn’t mentioned COVIDSafe at a press conference for well over a week, and was last questioned on it on 4 June during a radio interview.
“Now with things starting to open up the COVIDSafe app becomes more important than ever. It’s one of the protections, one of the important protections we have in place,” Mr Morrison said.
“Isolating those who have the virus and those they’ve been in contact with is our principal weapon against stopping the spread within the community. We have done that arguably better than almost any other country in the world. And the COVIDSafe app is a key tool in enabling those health workers, those health detectives, tracking down every single case.”
The COVIDSafe app cost more than $2 million to develop through contracts with private sector companies including the Boston Consulting Group and AWS.