The massive fail that is still costing you millions

Mid last year, it was touted as a vital tool that would allow us to escape from lockdown. It cost millions of taxpayer dollars and millions more were spent promoting and updating the product and encouraging us all to download it.

A little over a year – and $8 million – later, the COVIDSafe app has been nothing less than a massive fail. And … the costs continue to mount.

Remember when the PM implored us to download the app, even though it drained phone batteries and meant we needed to take our phones everywhere? It did sound like a step in the right direction, and any step out of lockdown was a highly sought-after step.

COVIDSafe was designed to quickly alert users if they had come into contact with a positive virus case and released in May last year.

Fourteen months later, it has been downloaded seven million times – or by about 30 per cent of the population – and has identified just 561 close contacts (including 544 contacts identified by manual tracers in NSW), The New Daily reports.

And the costs keeps climbing.

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During last month’s Senate hearing, Digital Transformation Agency CEO Randall Brugeaud said the app was costing taxpayers more than $75,000 every month. That’s on top of the $7.75 million development and upgrade costs.

“It doesn’t seem, on the face of it, to be value for money,” Associate Professor Paul Haskell-Dowland, a cyber security expert at Edith Cowan University, told The New Daily.

“I’m still astounded at the pricing attached to this. To have an app costing that mountain of money for a system that has only been used to identify a small number of cases, the numbers just don’t add up.”

Professor Katina Michael, a public interest technology advocate at the University of Wollongong, added that there were hidden costs we were also paying for.

“We need greater visibility of the ongoing operational costs, and greater visibility of the indirect costs like marketing,” Prof. Michael said.

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Yet she says the app hasn’t been a total waste of 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.

“This is a test bed. We may need to scrap what we’ve got and start again and make the right product from scratch.”

TND reports that more than $60 million has been spent advertising the COVIDSafe strategy, plus promoting social distancing and hand-washing guidelines. The government has not offered a further breakdown of those costs, i.e. exactly how much it has spent on advertising the app.

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Writing for The Conversation, Dr Paul Garrett and Professor Simon Dennis, from Melbourne University, said social media users were overwhelmingly reporting that they had abandoned the app in favour of QR code check-ins.

And when Victoria’s health minister, Martin Foley, was asked this week whether the COVIDSafe app had been used to respond to the latest outbreak, he said: “No. Not to my knowledge, and I’m sure in such a rare event it would have been brought to my attention.”

Dr Garrett and Prof. Dennis wrote: “For now, it seems the benefits to Australia’s public health may be better served by other technology, such as QR code check-ins. And the public cost of maintaining the COVIDSafe app may not be in our collective interest.”

Did you download the app? Do you still have it on your phone? Do you think the ongoing costs are value for money? Have your say in the comments section below.

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Written by Janelle Ward