Victorian authorities stopped using the federal government’s COVIDSafe contact tracing app during the recent COVID-19 outbreak because they hadn’t seen any value in it, former chief medical officer Brendan Murphy has told a public hearing.
Dr Murphy, who is now the Secretary of the Department of Health, told the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 on Tuesday morning that the Victorian government had decided to stop using the digital contact tracing app during its second wave outbreak of coronavirus due to the immense pressure its health authorities were under and the lack of early success staff had using the service.
“In Victoria they, for a period of time, were feeling so pressured that they decided not to use the app. They tried initially in the outbreak and the community that were involved had a low download rate and most of the early transmissions were in family gatherings where they identified contacts anyway,” Dr Murphy told the Senators.
“Because they were so pressured, they kept going without using the app. The public health unit felt that for a period of time, because they hadn’t found value in it in those early cases, they did stop using it, we believe.”
The question of just how long COVIDSafe wasn’t being used by Victorian health authorities was taken on notice by Dr Murphy.
It’s been well publicised that the much-touted app is yet to pick up any new close contact cases in Victoria, despite a huge uptick in COVID-19 cases in the last month, but this is the first time it has been revealed that it was not even checked during some period of time.
COVIDSafe is now again being used in Victoria, Dr Murphy said.
“They have now started using the app again and we hope to see some of the success we’ve seen in New South Wales recently. They have been very clear that they have committed to using it now,” he said.
In New South Wales, health authorities have now accessed data from the app 33 times, with 14 new close contacts identified through this process that weren’t previously identified by the manual contact tracers. The NSW health department said that all of these close contacts have been directed to self-isolate, and none have tested positive for COVID-19.
The model chosen for COVIDSafe means that state contact tracers are still closely involved with the process and must access and analyse data from the app detailing the close contacts of a confirmed virus case.
Under the different model offered by Google and Apple, these manual contact tracers are taken out of the process, with users receiving a notification directly through the app that they may have been in contact with someone later diagnosed with COVID-19.
This would relieve some of the pressure from the health authorities, but also relies on individuals following the directions of the app to self-isolate or get tested.
Labor has slammed the government over COVIDSafe’s issues, saying it has “failed” Victoria.
“It’s the ‘mystery cases’ – COVID-19 infections without an identifiable source – that are now the biggest cause of concern in Melbourne and the COVIDSafe app has simply not been able to perform the role that it was designed to do,” shadow assistant minister for cybersecurity Tim Watts said on Monday.
“Scott Morrison’s COVIDSafe app has failed Victoria, but it’s not too late for him to fix the app so that it can be of use in New South Wales and Queensland.”
Shadow health minister Chris Bowen also called on the federal government to admit that the contact tracing app isn’t working, and then work to fix it.