Australian Committee calls for independent review of COVIDSafe app

It said the AU$5.24 million app has significantly under-delivered on the Prime Minister's promise that the app would enable an opening up of the economy in a COVID safe manner.

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The Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 has handed down its interim report into the Australian government's health and economic response to the global pandemic.

The committee made a total of six recommendations, with one centred on the government's COVIDSafe contact tracing app.

The committee recommended that the government commission an independent review of the expenditure and design of the COVIDSafe app.

"Issues with the government's leadership of the health response persisted throughout the pandemic," the report [PDF] said. "The COVIDSafe app, which was supposed to be 'like sunscreen' and enable the states and territories to reopen, failed to meet its download target, suffered performance issues, and to date has only identified 17 close contacts."

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The committee said the AU$5.24 million COVIDSafe app significantly under-delivered on the Prime Minister's promise that the app would enable an opening up of the economy in a COVID safe manner.

It said the app was launched with significant performance issues and has only been of limited effectiveness in its primary function of contact tracing.

The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) said in May that 179 functional tests were conducted for the Apple iOS and Google Android versions of the COVIDSafe app prior to release and that requirements were met.

"All tests satisfied the baseline design requirements," the DTA said at the time. "Performance tests were also conducted against the technical requirements."

In June, however, it was revealed the DTA knew COVIDSafe had severe flaws. This was despite the app being sent out for public use on 26 April 2020. The revelation followed research that showed locked iPhones were practically useless when it came to logging encounters through COVIDSafe.

"Despite more than AU$5 million spent so far and the Prime Minister's repeated promises on the capacity for the COVIDSafe app to reopen the economy safely, it has delivered extremely limited tangible results to date," the report continued.

During Senate Estimates last month, the Department of Health revealed that despite there being a total of 27,554 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia, only 17 were picked up using COVIDSafe without the use of manual contact tracing.

"Not only has the COVIDSafe app under-delivered in terms of its effectiveness with contact tracing, it has also experienced issues with its performance," the report said.

The federal government last month announced an update to COVIDSafe, this time touting the changes would significantly improve its capability.

The app will incorporate a new Herald Bluetooth protocol, Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert said, explaining that this would offer "unparalleled app-level Bluetooth performance and contribute to better identification of potential close contacts".

As Australia's tech community has testified, instead of a rework, the whole app should have been scrapped and replaced with the Apple/Google Exposure Notification Framework, which the New Zealand government on Wednesday announced it was adopting.

Over 7.1 million Australians have downloaded and registered on the app, as of 30 November 2020.

Elsewhere, the committee recommended the government monitor the economic impact of reducing the Coronavirus Supplement and report back to the Senate with any data on the impact of the reductions.

It also asked the government to permanently raise the rate of JobSeeker at the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook or in the 2021-22 Budget.

At the time of publication, there were an estimated 47 active cases, with six new cases overnight. There has been a total of 27,993 cases of COVID-19 in Australia since the start of the pandemic, resulting in the deaths of 908 people.

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