COVIDSafe uploaded 1.65m 'handshakes' and was only used by NSW and Victoria

The Australian government says its COVIDSafe app identified 2,827 potential close contacts from 37,668 encounters in NSW and Victoria. Only 17 cases in NSW were identified separately to manual contact tracing efforts, however.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Australian government has finally released its report into the COVIDSafe contact tracing app that was paraded by Prime Minister Scott Morrison as digital sunscreen and the key for returning to somewhat normal life.

According to the report [PDF], over 7.6 million Australians registered for COVIDSafe. As at 31 December 2020, the ABS has Australia's population at just under 25.7 million people.

For the period 26 April 2020 to 15 May 2021, 779 COVIDSafe users, who tested positive for COVID-19, consented to having their data uploaded to the National COVIDSafe Data Store (NCDS).

This saw over 1.65 million digital handshakes uploaded to the NCDS, and the identification of 2,827 potential close contacts from 37,668 encounters.

It should be noted, however, that an encounter is defined as an interaction that includes handshakes that meet the agreed parameters for access by contact tracers -- within 1.5 metres for 15 minutes or more.

Broken down, for the period spanning 26 April to 15 November 2020, 735 COVIDSafe users, who tested positive for COVID-19, consented to their data being uploaded, versus only 44 in the period spanning 16 November 2020 through 15 May 2021.

Over 1.45 million digital handshakes were uploaded to the NCDS in the first six months and only 202,110 in the second.

2,579 of the potential close contacts were identified from more than 35,939 encounters from 26 April to 15 November 2020, and 248 potential close contacts were identified from more than 1,729 encounters in the following six-month period.

New South Wales and Victoria were the only states that used the information from the app.

NSW accessed COVIDSafe data to identify 81 close contacts, which the report said included 17 contacts that were not identified by manual contact tracing.

"In one instance, access to COVIDSafe data revealed a previously unrecognised exposure date from a known venue, Mounties," the report notes. "This resulted in the identification of an additional 544 contacts."

Two people in this group presented for testing and were subsequently confirmed to have COVID-19.

"NSW has said that from its experience the app is a useful additional tool to identify contacts in some circumstances," the report says.

Meanwhile in Victoria, the state has integrated app usage into its contact tracing processes. It reported that over 1,800 cases said they used the app.

Queensland and South Australia have had very low numbers of community transmission and have not identified additional contacts, while the other states and territories have not had a need to use the app due to low case numbers.

"A key challenge for the state and territory health officials has been the integration of COVIDSafe into their current contact tracing processes, and this has been a focus of regular discussions with state and territory health officials, who have provided input to the enhancement program for COVIDSafe," the report later says.

The app was launched, with teething issues, on 26 April 2020.

After many flaws were highlighted with the operation and design of the app, the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) saw fit to update its Bluetooth capability through the use of the Herald Protocol.

Some of these flaws included research that showed locked iPhones were practically useless when it came to logging encounters through COVIDSafe.

"Early in the pandemic, the Australian government saw the opportunity to use digital technology to assist in contact tracing efforts," the report says.

"The challenges at the time of the development of COVIDSafe involved producing a new digital contact tracing tool, for a new virus, and in the context of evolving epidemiological and technological evidence.

"To do it in a matter of weeks, and under intense public scrutiny to safeguard both public health priorities and individual privacy rights, was a commendable achievement."

In his foreword, Minister for Health Greg Hunt said he encouraged all Australians to download, update, and keep the COVIDSafe app active on their devices.

The total cost to build and operate the app as of May 2021 was AU$7,753,863.38, including GST. To the end of January, that figure was AU$6,745,322.31, which the DTA said comprised around AU$5,844,182.51 for the app's development and AU$901,139.80 for hosting.

As of 9pm AEST 28 July 2021, there were around 2,600 active cases of COVID-19 in Australia, with a total of 33,473 cases. New South Wales remains under strict lockdown orders until at least 28 August 2021.


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