Calling time on the COVIDSafe app

The federal government’s COVIDSafe app has delivered an abject lesson that with computer solutions, complexity isn’t better than simplicity. Its decision to call time on the app is long overdue. The public ceased to use it ages ago.

The Australian has verified that the app failed to uncover contacts of COVID-19 cases in the recent holiday outbreaks. This period includes the South Australian Parafield outbreak starting in mid November, clusters in NSW on the Northern Beaches and Berala, and community transmission cases in Victoria.

The Australian contacted each state and territory to find out the usage of the app.

In NSW a health spokesperson said experience to date in NSW had shown that the COVIDSafe app may be most useful where interviews with contact tracers have not been successful in identifying contacts. “To date, it has not been necessary to use the app in these latest clusters,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Victoria said that from 14 November, out of the 14 cases that had the app, it identified zero new contacts through the COVIDSafe data.

A Queensland Health spokesperson said the app had been used twice since the pandemic began to complement contact tracing efforts and there has been one contact identified through the app to date, and no positive cases. Both these occasions were pre-October 2020.

A South Australia health spokesperson said: “The Communicable Disease Control Branch are able to access data from the COVIDSafe app to assist with contact tracing, however so far this hasn’t been activated in positive cases we have had in South Australia.”

Other jurisdictions had no community cases to trace using the app. “During this period WA has not had any community transmission. No contacts have been identified through the COVID Safe App,” said a spokesperson for the WA Department of Health.

Similarly Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT didn’t have community transmission cases to trace in that time frame.

According to information from late last year supplied by the Office of Government Services Minister Stuart Robert to The Australian, the app proved useful earlier in the pandemic.

“NSW has successfully accessed the COVIDSafe app 98 times to identify 80 close contacts, including 17 contacts that were not identified by manual contact tracing,” it said.

“In one instance, their access to COVID App data revealed a previously unrecognised exposure date from a known venue (Mounties). This resulted in the identification of an additional 544 contacts. Two people in this group presented for testing and were subsequently confirmed to have COVID-19.

“Victoria has now fully integrated app usage into their contact tracing processes, and more than 1,800 people with COVID-19 have agreed to transmit their app data to public health authorities,” the federally-supplied information said.

“Victorian health officials are actively utilising the COVIDSafe app to verify close contacts identified.”

The app was originally marketed to the public as one of the main pillars in the Federal Government’s response to COVID-19 and the government still wants the public to download it as it can supplement the information available to state health authorities.

“The Australian Government continues to encourage Australians to join the more than 7.28 million people (that) have downloaded and registered for the COVIDSafe app.

“Ongoing upgrades to the technology behind the app, including Bluetooth are also assisting and everyone is encouraged to make sure they have the latest version.

“Importantly, the app works on people being within 1.5 metres of each other. It is effective where people are not social distancing and are in close proximity for 15 minutes.”

Questions remain. The app may have been downloaded by 7.28 million people, but how many actively open the app daily? Checking in at venues with QR codes seems to be becoming more the norm. And should the COVIDSafe app strictly adhere to the 1.5 metre rule given the existence of aerosol transmissions of longer distance?

The Australian reported late last year that technology solutions provider Delv had been awarded $4 million more for developing the COVIDSafe and coronavirus information apps.

Delv’s contract has been amended twice since the original $1.84 million allocation in March 2020.

The COVIDSafe app was a good idea originally

Mr Robert and his team did the right thing exploring adapting Singapore’s TraceTogether app to unravel the transmission of coronavirus in the community. The app’s aim was to sense the distance from a phone to other phones using Bluetooth signals.

The Singapore government rendered the code for the TraceTogether app open source and free to adapt. It was a starting point for developing COVIDSafe. When the app launched in April, it was one of the key pillars in the federal response to the virus. Prime Minister Scott Morrison described it as enabling us to get back to relative normality.

The app went well at first with six million downloads in the first month, and I was among those in the media wishing it well. Any weapon against this lethal virus was an important shot in the locker.

But problems arose. The Bluetooth detection functionality on iPhones would not work reliably unless the COVIDSafe app was loaded in the foreground. Different phone models had different Bluetooth signal strengths, so the software needed to know the brand and model of the detected handset to calculate its distance based on signal strength.

The rule of 1.5 metres apart for 15 minutes for an encounter seemed arbitrary given the possibility of infection by aerosol droplets over longer distances, and lately, infections arising from short encounters (such as the recent infections at BWS in Berala, Sydney).

The take-up of the app (7.28 million downloads) fell short of the 40 per cent target originally envisaged by the government, deemed to make COVIDSafe app matching a success.

There was nothing to keep nudging the public to open the app each day. There were notifications at times, but mostly it was left to the public to make sure the app was open and running. Our suggestion was to create a notification on your phone that would prompt you to open it after leaving home.

Over time, millions of people did not update the app to the latest version – this appeared not to happen automatically at times. Even with updates, there are complaints this month in the Google Play Store about the 2.0 update draining phone batteries.

Then there was privacy. Could the government use the data for purposes other than coronavirus tracking? Mr Morrison and health Minister Greg Hunt were adamant this wouldn’t happen and privacy protections were enshrined in law.

The government released the COVIDSafe app code and there was public discussion around potential vulnerabilities. Some tech journos felt the government’s assurances weren’t enough, especially as the app kept tabs on who your contacts are.

Others including myself felt that in the circumstances of the pandemic, and given the protections enshrined in law, it was worthwhile proceeding with the app. But we would hound the government if it was ever discovered that privacy was breached, or the data was used for other purposes.

That commitment holds and is vitally important. Over in Singapore, where the sign-up rate has risen to 80 per cent, the citizenry hasn’t been so lucky with TraceTogether.

The BBC reported this month that Singapore had admitted data from the app could also be accessed by police, reversing earlier privacy assurances. “Parliament was told … it could also be used ‘for the purpose of criminal investigation’,” the BBC reported.

Despite all the issues, Mr Robert’s department and contractors persisted with the app and kept upgrading it. We reported late last year that another $4m had been set aside for Delv to keep developing it along with coronavirus information apps.

The federal government points to NSW successfully accessing the COVIDSafe app 98 times to identify 80 close contacts, including 17 contacts not identified by manual contact tracing.

It said one recorded exposure led to the identification of an additional 544 contacts, two of whom were later confirmed to have COVID-19. This was earlier in the pandemic.

Chief health officer Professor Paul Kelly this year has urged people to keep using the app.

However the responses this week from state and territory health departments suggested it was of peripheral benefit only in the contact tracing effort.

During summer, I would ask friends if they had the COVIDSafe app installed and opened it, and not one said they did.

Responding to a pandemic means reacting quickly and taking a punt. While Mr Robert’s department was right to source and quickly implement the app, they also need the agility to call time on it, because if the public isn’t using it every day, it’s an illusion to think it is particularly useful.

As it happens, the simpler QRcode system implemented by different states is filling the void, and while its aims are relatively modest – it records people at venues at the same time as a positive case – it’s being widely embraced.

It has one particularly powerful feature – surveillance. Staff at cafes and venues prompt me to check in with QR codes. A couple of times when I forgot, a cashier told me I wouldn’t be served unless I did check in. Good on them.

It has some issues. I’ve noticed a few shops don’t have QR code check-ins. They should. It’s more complex at indoor shopping centres. Woolies for example doesn’t prompt me to check in. Maybe there should be staffed check-ins at shopping centre entrances. Yet I find myself checking in more than a dozen times per week.

In contrast to the complexity of the COVIDSafe app, the QR code system is old, repurposed technology (albeit backed by modern data processing). It’s a case of a simple system winning out against a more complex one – the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle in action for all of us in the community to appreciate.

Published by The Australian newspaper.

Posted in News.

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