COVID-19: Australia's new app, WhatsApp chat, and telehealth launch

As social distancing rules have tightened, the Australian government has launched a coronavirus information app and WhatsApp chat feature, and made telehealth services available country-wide.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The federal government over the weekend launched a new app and WhatsApp chat feature for keeping up to date with messaging coming out of Canberra on the COVID-19 outbreak.

Launching the app, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it provides information and resources, labelling it a "trusted place of advice and information that you and your family and your business can use to understand the decisions and the information that is available to everybody about what is occurring with the coronavirus."

See also: Australian government readies COVID-19 information app

In addition to providing information and advice, the app also has a registration feature for self-isolation.

The app is available on both iOS and Android and had already been downloaded around 482,000 times as of Sunday evening.

The app was developed by Australian technology firm Delv. 

"The Department of Health called on Delv due to its track record of delivering outstanding outcomes in short timeframes and its highly capable team. By leveraging their group of experts, Delv took ownership of the design and delivery, engaging confidently with a diverse range of stakeholders to deliver a highly scalable app in record time," Department of Health CIO Daniel Keys said.

With help from Atlassian and Facebook, the government has also implemented a WhatsApp bot, another method for providing information on the coronavirus.

To interact with it, users would need to message the Australian government account on +61 400 253 787. A list of prompts is then returned to the user to access official information about the virus.


Australian government COVID-19 app (left) and WhatsApp chat (right).

Screenshots: Asha Barbaschow/ZDNet

"A new messaging service which enables us to talk to more and more Australians to provide direct information on a whole range of features in terms of basic health advice, updates on the measures that are being put in place by state and federal governments, and that can assist you to get to get the accurate and timely information about what is being done by governments around the country to support you as you and your family and your household and your community work through the difficult months ahead because of the coronavirus," Morrison said.

"New technology we've put in place today is going to help us as a country get the messages and information we need to do the right thing to save lives and save livelihoods."

As of Sunday, over 291,000 people have added the chat to their WhatsApp.

"Some 1.25 million messages have been sent over the course of today," he said.

"I want to encourage every Australian -- you've got a phone, you need the app. Go on there and make sure you download that app and go on the internet browser and get access to that WhatsApp service so you can get the messages you need to support your decisions for you and your family."

The World Health Organization (WHO) launched its WhatsApp chatbot earlier this month.

WHO has recently extended its information to be presented in Arabic, English, French, and Spanish.

The service can be accessed by a link that opens a conversation on WhatsApp. Users can simply type "hi", "hola", "salut" or "مرحبا" to activate the conversation, prompting a menu of options that can help answer their questions about COVID-19.

The Australian government last week also began its text message campaign, telling nearly 36 million mobile numbers how to navigate the health of individuals and the broader community.

"As the spread of the coronavirus increases, it's vital every Australian understands the practical action they must take to look after themselves and help us protect those most at risk," a statement from Minister for Health Greg Hunt, Australian Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy, and Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher said.

The government said it would continue to use text messages as one of its communication methods.


From 8 am Monday, telehealth services were made available to all Australians.

Services will include GP services and some consultation services provided by other medical specialists, nurse practitioners, mental health treatment, chronic disease management, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health assessments, services to people with eating disorders, pregnancy support counselling, services to patients in aged care facilities, children with autism, and after-hours consultations.

The aim is to take pressure off hospitals and emergency departments.

"Whole of population telehealth will allow people to access essential health services in their home and will support self-isolation and quarantine policies to reduce risk of exposure and spread of COVID-19. It will also help vulnerable doctors to continue to deliver services to their patients," a joint statement from Hunt and Principle Medical Advisor Professor Michael Kidd said.

"Australia's primary health workers are our frontline in leading the fight against this pandemic. Services via telehealth will limit unnecessary exposure of patients and health professionals to COVID-19, wherever treatment can be safely delivered by phone or videoconferencing."

The AU$669 million program has received bipartisan support.

"We must be encouraging and incentivising anyone who is able to have their physical and mental health issues to be treated remotely and immediately to do so. We must alleviate pressure on our healthcare system," Shadow Minister for Health Chris Bowen said.

Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles said the state's telehealth system's capacity has "quintupled" the number of online users it can host at any one time. He said the boosted capacity would help ease the burden that the novel coronavirus pandemic places on the state's health system.

"Queensland Health has increased capacity of telehealth services to a patient's home significantly from 90 up to 1,600 users online at any one time," Miles said.

"This huge increase in online appointments will decrease the number of patients who need to physically present at hospitals."

At the time of writing, the WHO was reporting nearly 635,000 confirmed cases, with almost 30,000 fatalities as a result of the virus. Australia has reported around 4,000 cases and 17 deaths.

As of Sunday night, there have been over 211,000 tests undertaken in Australia.


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