COVIDSafe app gathering dust as rival approach pings millions

While Australian contact tracers appear to have given up on the COVIDSafe app, England is experiencing the opposite problem.

England’s contact-tracing app is confining hundreds of thousands of people a week to their homes in a so-called “pingdemic” that’s forced businesses closed temporarily and left supermarket shelves empty.

It’s an astonishing contrast that highlights not only the stark difference between tens of thousands of cases a day and a few hundred but the divergent approaches both governments took when trying their hand at digital contact tracing for the first time.

Empty shelves and signs on the soft drinks aisle of a Sainsbury’s store in Rowley Regis in the West Midlands, England, last month. (Matthew Cooper/PA via AP) (AP)

While New South Wales Health confirms it has not used the app in the state’s latest outbreak and Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley was on the verge of laughter when he was asked the same question earlier this year, England’s app is identifying more than half a million close contacts a week.

The nation’s surge in cases and the resulting “pings” from the app became so pronounced late last month that the number of people self-isolating was causing major problems, sparking an overhaul allowing fully vaccinated people to ignore the warnings from the middle of this month.

Many businesses, such as supermarket chain Iceland, had to close some stores — something it didn’t have to do at the height of England’s three lockdowns. Sandwich chain Pret A Manger said it had temporarily closed 17 shops due to staff being forced to self-isolate. 

But it’s a world away from the Australian version gathering metaphorical dust in the pockets of remaining users.

File image of COVIDSafe app.
Contact tracers are not using the COVIDSafe app. (Nine)

A months-overdue report to Parliament released last week found COVIDSafe just 735 infected Australians had agreed to upload their data in the month to November, leading to 2579 potential close contacts being identified. In the six months to May 15 this year, that figure dropped to 44 people, and 248 potential contacts.

“The app is complementary to other tools such as QR code apps, which are location based,” the report stated.

“By virtue of its design, the app will assist states and territories most in situations where there is large scale community transmission.

“The relatively low number of cases in Australia and effectiveness of our contact tracing processes has created an environment in which it has rarely been necessary for public health officials to use the app, except to confirm cases identified through manual processes.”

According to Digital Transformation Agency boss Randall Brugeaud’s corrected Senate Estimates hearing testimony from June, the app had detected 561 close contacts that weren’t found through manual contact tracing.

Jim Mussared, a software engineer who flagged several security flaws when the app first launched, said “the government should admit failure”.

“The thing that baffles me is that it’s literally unheard of for Apple and Google to collaborate on something and provide something as simple as the exposure notification framework,” he told 9News.com.au, referring to the system used by apps in England and most of Europe. 

“In tech you never get stuff just handed to you like this. 

“The audacity for a government to think they know better is just unbelievable. And it would have been such an easy win for them.”

Empty shelves at Morrisons in BelleVale, Liverpool. Deliveries to supermarkets and other businesses across the UK are facing a growing shortage of drivers with many self-isolating after being pinged by the NHS COVID app. Picture date: Wednesday July 21, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story HEALTH Coronavirus. Photo credit should read: Peter Byrne/PA Wire (AP)

Yet the Morrison government continues to defend its multimillion-dollar investment, even as evidence mounts that apps based on technology developed with Apple and Google, such as in England and most of Europe, have proven to be effective.

A study published in respected journal Nature in May found the National Health Service Test and Trace app had prevented roughly 284,000 cases and 4200 deaths, or almost double that when calculated with a different statistical approach.

In Spain’s Canary Islands, scientists estimated the Spain Radar app detected almost twice as many contacts as manual contact tracers and in Switzerland they found it to be similarly effective.

By contrast, even though COVIDSafe collects significantly more data than these apps — in a centralised manner that worries privacy and security experts — little information has been released about how effective it has been.

Experts in Australia and overseas have raised concerns about the approach taken by the Australian government in terms of privacy, security and effectiveness.

QR codes have emerged as the digital tracing weapon of choice for contact tracers. (Getty)

But Skills Minister Stuart Robert earlier this year insisted the app was the “the most effective contact tracing app of its kind in the world” and said Victorian authorities had “accessed” its data — but not necessarily identified any contacts — earlier this year.

“The app is as a part of a suite of measures and is actually being effectively deployed by states and territories with the contact tracing that they’re using,” he told Parliament in June.

The Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley cracked a smile when asked in May if the app had been used to identify any positive cases, saying “not to my knowledge. And I’m sure that such a rare event would have been brought to my attention”. Premier Dan Andrews last week said he didn’t think the app had picked up any cases in his state.

NSW Health noted the app was at its “most useful where case interviews have not been successful in identifying contacts”.

“To date, it has not been necessary to use the COVIDSafe app with any case clusters in 2021,” a spokesperson told 9News last weekend.

The now-ubiquitous QR codes have emerged as the real digital lifeline in Australian efforts to control the pandemic, bringing their own security concerns.

The world’s best claim also belies the fact that most wealthy countries long ago abandoned a do-it-yourself model in favour of ready-made tools provided by the tech giants. England and Germany both abandoned do-it-yourself failures in favour of the Apple-Google approach.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison compared the app to “sunscreen”. (Photo: Alex Ellinghausen/Sydney Morning Herald) (Sydney Morning Herald)

Matthias Wellig, whose Ubique company played a major role in developing the technology in Switzerland that went on to be incorporated in the Apple-Google model, said the study results were “almost surprising”.

“If you had like these numbers on the table a year before, you would say ‘crazy, with a tech that you just put in your pocket, you can save that much life?'” he told 9News.com.au earlier this year.

“… And right now it’s just a side remark in the public opinion.

“It is not something that is like a headline of each and every newspaper.”

Dan Bogdanov, who designed the Estonian app, said the biggest mistake made by app designers was not building in more analytics tools to show the benefits.

“We’ve lost the perception game,” he told 9News.com.au.

“That technology might actually work, but because we didn’t make it perceivably efficient, then the public perception is going in that direction.

“Even now that we have data supporting that it actually had an effect changing the perception in retrospect is, well, I’m not sure it’s actually a fight worth fighting in the end.”

Mr Wellig believes a combination of QR code tracing and proximity tracking is likely the best digital approach to helping manual contact tracing, and says Germany has shown QR code tracing can be done while still preserving privacy.

But either way, he expects “the next pandemic will require its own tools”.

“Even if it’s in five years, this technology we’re building right now will be old technology, and nobody is going to use them,” he said.

– With Associated Press

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