COVIDSafe app being used in Victoria to double check manual tracers

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It might be verging on the edges of believability, but Australia’s COVIDSafe app might not be all that it’s cracked up to be, and the Prime Minister may have oversold the app’s potential.

In May, Scott Morrison pinned the lifting of coronavirus restrictions on the installation base of the government’s COVIDSafe app.

“Well, the first step to getting back to that is downloading COVIDSafe,” Morrison said in direct response to being asked when Australians could go back to the pub.

“Now, if that isn’t an incentive for Australians to download COVIDSafe on a Friday, I don’t know what is … I encourage them if they’re talking to each other on Zoom, or they’re having a cold one later on today in that environment, if they’re looking forward to doing it in a pub, well, that is a prerequisite to even getting to that conversation.”

At the time, Morrison said he wanted 40% of Australians to use the app, but later that month, the federal Department of Health stated it had no install target in mind.

“The more, the better.” departmental associate secretary Caroline Edwards said.

Reappearing before the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 on Friday, Edwards was peppered by questions from Senators asking how many cases the app has been able to find, and whether the app was a failure.

“The app is operating in Victoria to validate contacts and I guess the reason we’re going round in circles a bit is because we all accept that contact tracing hasn’t worked as well as it should have in Victoria, for lots of reasons, and we’ve never said that the app was the sole or even the primary contract tracing [tool],” Edwards said.

“We’ve said it’s a tool, which it is a tool, it’s being used in Victoria to validate. We think it’ll come more into its own as it moves forward, and as contact tracers are brought on and trained in the app, it’s an important tool as part of that and to characterise it as a failure doesn’t properly respect the efforts that have been made by contract tracers.

“It’ll be an additional good tool for them going forward, it works as intended, and we’re looking forward to it having greater effect into the future.”

Earlier this month, former Australian chief medical officer and now Secretary of the Department of Health, Dr Brendan Murphy, said Victoria had previously stopped using the app.

“For a period of time, they were feeling so pressured that they decided not to use the app,” Murphy said at the time.

“The public health unit, I think, felt that for a period of time they because they hadn’t found value in it in those early cases they did stop using it for a while, we believe. But they have been very clear that they committed to using it at the moment.”

On Friday, Edwards said the length of time that Victoria had stopped using the app was around a week.

Representatives of the department continually pointed to the one proven example of the app helping discover new cases, where the app revealed “a previously unrecognised exposure date” from a known venue in New South Wales, and this resulted in the identification of 544 additional contacts, from which a positive pair of cases were identified.

Murphy said the app was more useful in an environment like New South Wales, compared to Victoria where residents are back in lock down.

“It has been incredibly effective in the situation in New South Wales where there are people moving around the community where they’re not locked down and going to bars and places where they don’t know where they are. That’s where it’s of most effect,” he said.

“We believe it will be of value in Victoria particularly when they come out of this stage four lock down. At the moment there is not much use of an app when people are locked in their home, it’s mainly to pick those unknown contacts.”

Department officials told the committee that app data had been accessed over 300 times by state health authorities.

On Friday, an update to the app was released that provided support for the Turkish and Punjabi languages.

Last week, the ABC reported some of the translations of coronavirus-related public health messaging were nonsensical.

Murphy told the committee on Friday the translations were completed by a service with a whole-of-government contract managed by Home Affairs, and the bad translations were due to fonts.

“For the first time in several hundred of these translations that we’ve done, when the font was loaded onto the finally published document, it caused an error,” he said.

“That was an completely unexpected thing because it was a type setting caused the error, so now we have a third stage that after — even though the first two translations are checked — after the final published document is ready to load … it is checked the third time by the accredited authorised translator.”

Murphy also said the department is working with the Australian Medical Association and college of doctors on how to make telehealth services a more permanent fixture of Australian health care, but no concrete plans have been made so far.

One potential problem could be ensuring those without a regular doctor do not get scammed when looking for telehealth services, Murphy said.

“The challenge, of course, when you don’t have it with your regular GP, is that we see online businesses that have potentially exploited the system. So we have to get the policy settings right to stop exploitation of online telehealth, but supporting vulnerable people,” he said.

“And again, ministers are very concerned about that, but we haven’t worked the way through on that, at this time.”

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