The much-discussed COVIDSafe app has not identified close contacts of anyone infected with coronavirus that manual tracing did not find.
Launched on 26 April, the app was touted as a way to end pandemic social restrictions more swiftly. But the troubled software, dutifully downloaded by about 6.44 million Australians, had been accessed only 30 times by mid-June, to no effect.
The app is meant to help state and territory contact-tracing teams find contacts of COVID-19 cases who have been within 1.5 metres of them for more than 15 minutes.
Nine reports that testing data, seen by the Senate’s Select Committee on COVID-19, shows when an iPhone is locked, the app has difficulty detecting another nearby iPhone user.
“Only 25 to 50 per cent of the time did it work on May 26 in locked iPhone-to-iPhone testing.
“Issues were also prevalent on Android smartphones, with problems remaining on May 26, especially when the app’s testers tried to get iPhones and Androids to share information.”
Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick, originally a supporter of the concept, accused the federal government of “dishonesty” over the app’s performance, questioning whether it was working properly, or at all.
Labor government services spokesman Bill Shorten said the app “is clearly not working well enough and the government is being secretive about how often it has actually made a difference”.
“COVIDSafe has had major problems from the start like not working properly on iPhones … After millions of taxpayers’ dollars have been spent, the app would want to start showing some proper results soon …”
A spokesman for government services minister Stuart Robert said: “The Australian community can have confidence it is working securely and effectively, despite the lack of community transmission of COVID-19.”
In mid-June, authorities said the app was quiet because case numbers in Australia were low.
“Australia is in a fortunate position with so few cases across the country, including returning travellers who would not have the app,” a Department of Health spokesperson said.
But numbers have risen steadily in Victoria ever since. Effective means to trace community transmission are vital to curbing the spiking numbers in that state. Community transmission relates to cases acquired in Australia where the source of the infection hasn’t been found.
The ABC reported: “The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which provides advice to all health ministers, says community transmission is the ‘biggest single concern’ of the coronavirus pandemic.
“These are the cases of COVID-19 that have popped up in places authorities weren’t expecting. They are a concern because they mean there could be more undetected cases among us.
“An increase in community transmission translates to a looser grip on infectioncontrol as there are missing links between cases.”
La Trobe University’s Hassan Vally, an epidemiologist and expert in public health, told the ABC community tracing is “what happens when you do contact tracing and still have no idea how that person became infected. And if you don’t know, you can’t do anything (specific) about it.”
The Victorian government is conducting a 10-day ‘testing blitz’, featuring 800 testers, because of the community transmission challenge in the Melbourne suburbs of Keilor Downs, Broadmeadows, Maidstone, Albanvale, Sunshine West, Hallam, Brunswick West, Fawkner, Reservoir and Pakenham.
“When you don’t know who’s spreading the disease, that’s when you need to go out and you need to test as many people as possible, which is what’s happening right now in Melbourne,” Dr Vally said.
“The trouble is it only takes one infected person and if they infect two, who infect four, then eight and next thing you know, it’s gone like greased lightning,” says Professor Gerard Fitzgerald, expert in public health management from the Queensland University of Technology.
“That’s why the country is anxiously waiting for Victoria to control this.”
Take-up of the app isstill short of the target of 40 per cent of the population mooted at the launch.
The Guardian’s Josh Taylor says the app needs to be improved because “as the states move to ease restrictions and increase capacities at entertainment venues and sporting matches, the app could prove useful in cases where close contacts aren’t easily identifiable …”
Seth Lazar, who leads the Humanising Machine Intelligence project at the Australian National University, believes COVIDSafe needs more time and more cases to be accurately assessed. It may prove more useful in combatting a ‘second wave’ of coronavirus.
But some have made their minds up already.
A Nine editorial was scathing.
“The recent surge of infections in Victoria has starkly demonstrated that large outbreaks can never be ruled out until a vaccine is discovered. In months ahead, an effective tracing app could make a real difference in combatting those outbreaks. At the moment, Australia does not have that. It’s time the government owned up to that and set a path forward to doing everything it can to rectify the problem.”
Do you have the app? Is it affecting your phone’s battery life? Do you believe it is just the right thing to do to have the app?
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