No modelling on 40% trace target: Health

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

Australia will be “one of the first adopters” of Apple’s contact tracing Bluetooth fix, with government officials confirming that the current app has significant performance issues on the Apple iPhone.

The Senate committee investigating the government response to COVID-19 held a public hearing in Canberra on Wednesday afternoon focused on the COVIDSafe app.

It was revealed at the hearing that the 40 per cent of the population target regularly touted by government ministers and the Prime Minister as the threshold for easing social restrictions around the country is not based on any modelling or evidence, and is not being used by the Department of Health.

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The performance of the COVIDSafe app on iPhones has been a point of continued confusion, with Apple shuttering the performance of apps using Bluetooth while running in the background of a device.

Digital Transformation Agency chief executive Randall Brugeaud addressed the issues at the hearing, confirming that the app performs best on iPhones when the app is running and the device is unlocked. In other situations, the performance is variable, and some contacts would be missed, he said.

“The quality of the Bluetooth connectivity for phones that have the app installed and running in the foreground is very good, and it progressively deteriorates and the quality of the connection is not as good as you get to a point where the phone is locked and the app is running in the background,” Mr Brugeaud told the hearing.

“It’s highly variable. It depends on the phones. Some phones are older and have less strength in the Bluetooth signal depending on the actual age of the physical phone, it varies the performance of the Bluetooth connectivity.”

Apple and Google are currently working together to develop an API for contact tracing that is expected to address these Bluetooth issues on iPhones and will later bake this function into the actual devices.

The federal government will adopt this fix as soon as it is available, which is expected within the fortnight, Mr Brugeaud said.

“We’re aware of the performance issues as the app moves further into the background and we’re working with Apple and Google on the improvements they’re making to Bluetooth and we will be one of the first adopters of that improved Bluetooth connectivity,” he said.

Australia’s contact tracing app is performing as well on iPhones as in any other country with a similar service, but is still likely to miss contacts between users until the fix is implemented, he said.

“There will be circumstances where the app will not capture a Bluetooth handshake but our option was to wait until every feature was running perfectly and deliver a solution in six or 12 months time, our focus has been privacy, security, performance, the Bluetooth performance that we have in Australia with our app is as good as anywhere in the world,” Mr Brugeaud said.

Multiple senators in the committee also questioned the 40 per cent of the population download target that has been touted by several government ministers, including health minister Greg Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who have also regularly linked the uptake of the app with the ability to ease social restrictions around Australia.

But acting health department secretary Caroline Edwards said this target was not provided by her department, and no modelling has been done to reach this figure.

Ms Edwards and the other departmental officials backed away from this target, saying that any increased uptake of the app is a positive.

This led to a fiery encounter between the officials and Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick who was baffled by a lack of analysis on usage and the app’s effectiveness, suggesting the government hadn’t done its “due diligence”

“You’ve done modelling on the spread of the virus but it seems extraordinary to me you haven’t done modelling on uptake versus usefulness,” Senator Patrick said.

“That will come from some statistical analysis – you need this amount of uptake in order to get this result. Have you done analysis on that? It’s part of the fundamental design of any application. I have an engineering background and I’m looking for quantifiable analysis.”

Ms Edwards said that 40 per cent target had not been provided by the Health department and was not being used by the department.

“Every single upload of this app and use of it is useful to help our health authorities do their work. I’d take one, I’d take 10 per cent and if it gets to 40 per cent and beyond I’d be delighted,” she said. Every upload and use is a benefit. The more people who use the app, the better data we have to assist that process,” she said.

“That 40 per cent number is meaningful to many people. We’re not aiming for a particular number.”

Mr Morrison has previously said that “you’d need that at least” in reference to the 40 per cent target, while Mr Hunt has also previously pointed to the target.

At the senate inquiry hearing, Mr Brugeaud confirmed that the COVIDSafe source code will be publicly released by the end of this week or early next week, while the data management protocols and agreements with state and territory governments are also expected to be made public.

Senators also questioned the role of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner in overseeing the contact tracing app and whether the agency could handle the added work. The department officials confirmed that the OAIC will not be receiving any additional funding to conduct this new work.

Greens senator Nick McKim also criticised the power given to the health minister to choose when the app isn’t needed and when to have the datastore deleted, saying this should instead be linked with the end of the Biosecurity Emergency order.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

1 Comment
  1. Yesterday was a bad day for the government officials sent into defend COVIDSafe before a Senate committee. “So my plea to the Government and the Opposition is simple. Let’s learn from this exercise and see if we can do two things. Firstly, let’s build an app that has the support of a broader group of IT experts and human rights lawyers. And secondly, let’s find a way to persuade the general public that, notwithstanding all the serious government-initiated technology stuff-ups in recent years, we can have confidence that the (updated) app is safe to use”…

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