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‘Another IT mess’: COVIDSafe app has been a huge flop

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Australia’s COVIDSafe app has identified only 17 close contacts that were not already found by contact tracers, despite costing taxpayers millions.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison sold the COVIDSafe app to Australians as our “ticket to a COVID-safe Australia” when it launched in April last year, but by the government’s own numbers only 800 cases have been identified through the tracing system.

Within those figures, which were revealed in an overdue government report released this week, only 17 close contacts were found by the app that were not also identified by manual contact tracers.

Since it was launched the COVIDSafe app has been hit with criticism over its effectiveness and privacy.

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The app is costing taxpayers between $60,000 and $75,000 each month to run and came with an initial bill of $10 million.

Former chief executive of Internet Australia Laurie Patton said the app had cost taxpayers $1.5 million for every case it uniquely identified.

“There were 17 cases of people who weren’t otherwise identified by manual tracing,” Mr Patton said.

“It’s the $1.5 million disaster.”

The official report into the COVIDSafe app was finally released, but only after extensive criticism over the delay.

Legislation requires the app to be reviewed every six months to help protect privacy and ensure transparency.

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Yet this is the first report despite the app being launched 15 months ago.

The overdue report reveals the app had identified just 2827 potential close contacts, plus “some that would not have been otherwise identified”.

The report concedes the app has “rarely been necessary”.

“Well established tracing processes has limited the need of public health officials to rely on COVIDSafe,” the report said.

“The relatively low number of cases in Australia and effectiveness of our contact-tracing processes has created an environment in which it has rarely been necessary for public health officials to use the app, except to confirm cases identified through manual processes.”

Why we need a working app

Mr Patton said an app that worked well could be a game-changer at this stage of the pandemic.

“The Delta variant is so rampant the situation in NSW is getting out of control,” he said.

“They can’t track down people fast enough. If we had a working COVIDsafe app it would help.”

Other countries, such as the UK, have been using their apps well, Mr Patton said.

Singapore, China and other East Asian countries have used apps effectively to respond to outbreaks.

And last week, just under 620,000 people across the UK were “pinged” by the National Health Service COVID-19 app and ordered into isolation.

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The record number led to fears some people were fleeing the app to avoid isolating.

Since it was launched, the COVIDSafe app has been downloaded by 7.6 million Australians, but the government’s report did not state how many of those registrations remain active.

Last year a cross-national online survey on public opinion towards COVID-19 contact-tracing apps, conducted by the Mercator Institute for China Studies, showed that people will only use the app if they are convinced it works.

The more respondents trust the state, the more likely they are to download the app, the study it found.

Mr Patton said trust was one of the big reasons the COVIDSafe app never took off.

“I think the problem is this government has a track record of flawed IT projects,” he said.

“So people just went ‘Oh no, another IT mess up’.”

Hidden costs

Professor Katina Michael, a public interest technology advocate at the University of Wollongong, said there were hidden costs to the COVIDSafe app that Australians were also paying for.

“We need greater visibility of the ongoing operational costs, and greater visibility of the indirect costs, like marketing,” Professor Michael told The New Daily. 

More than $60 million has been spent advertising the COVIDSafe strategy, including social distancing and hand-washing guidelines.

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The Morrison government has not said how much of that has been spent specifically on advertising the app.

Despite the costs, Professor Michael said the app hasn’t necessarily been a total waste of time and money.

“Financially, we might say it’s not working, but from a longevity point of view, we might say it’s a good investment,” she said.

“If things get worse and the coronavirus mutates we could be up against something much worse where we need to implement a system properly.”

Currently, the app works by recording if two people are within 1.5 metres of each other for at least 15 minutes.

The government has flagged it may update the settings in line with medical advice to help curb the spread of Delta.

“In light of the emergence of more highly transmittable variants of COVID-19, if the medical experts believe that a shorter time frame for a close contact should be considered, then the government will look at that in consultation with the states and territories,” the report said.

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