COVIDSafe app yet to trace useful number of unique cases despite second wave

"As soon as the developer community heard about this they said 'yeah that's not technically possible so it's not going to work'," Mr Edwards said.

"Apple and Google made their own frameworks that handle contact tracing and because they are the operating system vendors there is a bunch of stuff they can do that a third party developer cannot do."

About $60 million has been spent on advertising the COVIDSafe strategy, including physical distancing and handwashing guidance. The government would not confirm how much of that has been spent advertising the app.

There have been eight updates, since the first version launched on April 26 including the latest one on Tuesday.

Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said last week about 400 Victorians who tested positive in recent weeks had downloaded the app.

Data from the app has been accessed 24 times by NSW Health with six people identified that otherwise wouldn't have been found via manual contact tracing, a spokeswoman said. No contacts were found by the app that contact tracers had not already identified in Victoria, despite the huge workload amid that state's second wave.

Meanwhile, an app using a different framework rolled out in Ireland sent 91 users a "close contact exposure alert" telling them to get tested in its first two weeks. Dublin, Ireland's capital, has reported 156 new cases over the past two weeks.

Ireland and the UK backtracked from their own app solutions and switched over to the Apple and Google option with some success according to a BBC report, an app developer, who asked not to be named due to government contracts, said.

Senator Rex Patrick. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick said when the app was released health officials and ministers promoted it as part of a solution when they knew it didn't work because the Digital Transformation Agency told a committee he was on at the time it was not working.

"If the COVIDSafe app was subject to Australian consumer law the government could be dragged into court for misleading and deceptive conduct," Mr Patrick said.

Labor's health spokesman, Chris Bowen, called the app a flop and said despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison insisting it was "our ticket to freedom", it was yet to perform as advertised.

"Despite downloads reaching the government's (amended) target, this week we saw the Prime Minister saying in areas of outbreak people haven't used the app, " Mr Bowen said.

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert said the app was "working exactly as intended" with health officials using it more than 300 times to assist manual tracing.

"I think there are some real sovereignty issues with allowing Google and Apple to dictate terms and how to do COVID tracing," Mr Robert said.

The government is open to improving technology on the basis that it maintains a key role for health officials but the current structure of the Google-Apple API does not do that, a spokesman for Mr Robert said.

"We will continue to work with Google and Apple, particularly to see if they can remove their barriers in allowing a sovereign tracing app - that has health professionals at its core - access to improved Bluetooth functionality," the spokesman said.

More than 6.7 million Australians have registered for the COVIDSafe app.

clarification

This article was updated at 9.35 am on 26/7/2020 with comments from Government Services Minister Stuart Robert explaining the government's concerns about sovereignty issues with the Apple/Google framework suggested by experts to improve its COVIDSafe app. And the advertising budget for the app was not $60 million as has been reported elsewhere. That money was spent on advertising the entire COVIDSafe strategy, including washing hands, and physical distancing. The government would not confirm how much was spent advertising the app itself.

Nigel Gladstone is an investigative journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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