There is “no way” the government will switch to the Google and Apple model for digital contact tracing, with Government Services Minister Stuart Robert’s office labelling the tech giants’ model “high risk.”
It said that while the decentralised Google/Apple framework for contact tracing could augment manual tracing methods, on its own it would do little to help stop the spread of the virus.
A spokesman for Mr Robert confirmed that government was still working with Apple and Google on how the framework “may augment” the Australian COVIDSafe app, it had concerns about the decentralised model.
COVIDSafe operates on a centralised model, where data from the app is sent to state and territory to conduct contact tracing.
Google and Apple have only made their technology available to government apps that employ a decentralised model where users are notified within the app if they have come into contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case, effectively taking contact tracers out of the process.
Mr Robert’s spokesperson told InnovationAus: “The current Apple and Google tracing platforms are structured very differently. They rely on the individual who tests positive to initiate sending the alert to the close contacts, and those people reacting to automated notifications, isolating and getting tested.”
“Public health officials won’t have access to that information, which will reside with Google and Apple. This is high risk. People may ignore the information and that will lead to the further spread of the virus,” the spokesperson said.
“Alerts may also create confusion and panic within the community without the appropriate support and guidance currently provided by public health officials.
“This would make it difficult for the health officials to follow cases and contain outbreaks. This distributed model of contact tracing is considered significantly less effective at mapping and tracking the spread of COVID-19 than the current method used by public health officials.”
Despite government still apparently testing the Google and Apple option, deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth on Sunday categorically said the government would not switch models as it wants to keep the manual contact tracers in the process.
“It fundamentally changes the locus of control. It takes out the middle person and the middle person is the contact tracer, the person that keeps us safe. There is no way we’re switching to a process that takes out the manual contact tracers,” Dr Coatsworth said on Network Ten’s The Project.
The app is yet to pick up a new close contact because of the effectiveness of the manual contact tracers, Dr Coatsworth said.
“Our manual contact tracers are really excellent at their jobs – at the moment they’re performing as well as the COVIDSafe app. We need to focus on the fact our IT is always going to be part of an augmenting process of our usual contact tracing efforts. They’re using the app just to make extra sure that no-one else has been a potential contact,” he said.
“I’ve bought into the app and I continue to buy into the app. I think it’s a great platform. The app is going to identify cases eventually that haven’t been determined by the contact tracers. If numbers were to increase then the contact tracing app comes into its own as an important adjunct.”
COVIDSafe uses Bluetooth technology to record contact between users and stores this information on the device.
If a user is later diagnosed with COVID-19, they can consent to their contact data being uploaded to the national database, hosted by AWS. This information is then passed on to the state or territory health authorities, allowing them to manually contact trace using that contact information provided by users.
In contrast to this model, Apple and Google recently launched its own “exposure notification” framework, which is a different option for digital contact tracing based on a centralised model.
Under this framework, all contact data remains on a user’s device, and they are notified directly through the app if they have been in close contact with a confirmed case.
This effectively takes the manual contact tracers out of the process, although the Google and Apple model does allow for them to follow-up one of these notifications.
Australia’s COVIDSafe app has been plagued with performance issues, particularly on Apple devices, with recent resting showing it is only catching between 25 per cent to 50 per cent of interactions between locked iPhones.
Since it was launched, about 40 people diagnosed with COVID-19 have had CovidSafe installed on their phones, but on none of these occasions were any new contacts identified through the app that hadn’t already been listed by the manual contact tracers.
There have been growing calls from the Opposition and digital and civil rights experts for the government to switch to the Google and Apple model in order to fix these performance issues by utilising an API baked into the operating systems, and to improve privacy and security protections around the data.
The Digital Transformation Agency, which led the development of COVIDSafe, has previously claimed Australia would be “one of the first adopters” of the new Google-Apple framework.
Shadow government services minister Bill Shorten said the government should now be looking at overhauling COVIDSafe and adapting it to the Google and Apple model.
“The current app is clearly not working well enough and the government is being secretive about how often it has actually made a difference. COVIDSafe has had major problems from the start like not working properly on iPhones, and the scoreboard shows little has improved,” Mr Shorten said.
“All options should be on the table for a functioning app and we should certainly reflect on the UK moving to the Google and Apple framework. But after millions of taxpayers’ dollars have been spent, the app would want to start showing some proper results soon for it not to be added to the pile of Stuart Robert’s disasters.”
A number of countries along with the UK have opted for the Google and Apple model for decentralised contact tracing, with some apps already having been launched based on this framework.
Australia is now joining Singapore in rejecting this model. COVIDSafe is closely modelled on Singapore’s TraceTogether app, with key source code copied and pasted from this service.
While rejecting the Apple and Google model, Singapore has since rolled out wearable devices to track movements of citizens and contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases.