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Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Health Minister denies states and territories unable to access COVIDSafe data

Following reports earlier this week that no state or territory health officials were able to access the data from COVIDSafe despite the app being live for nearly a month.

Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt has denied state health officials are unable to access COVIDSafe app data to perform coronavirus contact tracing.

During a press conference on Wednesday, Hunt was asked if reports, originally from The Guardian, that New South Wales Health officials have been unable to access the data for contact tracing were true.

"No," he said.

It was reported that despite the app being live for nearly a month and state officials having received training on how to use the data, they were yet to get their hands on it.

In a statement, NSW Health said that while it could confirm the COVIDSafe app is working, data from it has reflected details already obtained by the state's own dedicated contact tracing team.

"As recent positive cases in NSW have been in hotel quarantine, they have not generated community contacts, so even our own tracing efforts have been unnecessary," a spokesperson said.

"NSW Health has an expert team of 150 people who use a sophisticated system of contact tracing and if needed, members of that team can and have accessed app data."

NSW Health said that together with other jurisdictions, it has been actively "collaborating" with the Digital Transformation Agency to prioritise enhancements to the app.

"We will continue to work with the Commonwealth while a formal evaluation of the contact tracing app is underway.

See also: How NSW Health used tech to respond to COVID-19

Hunt was asked how the data health officials are collecting from the app was actually being used. He said that due to the legislation, the federal government only knows "general principles" and is aware the Victorian government, for example, has been using the app information because it told the government it was.

"We're told that all of the states and territories are using the COVIDSafe app, but in six of the states and territories, for example, there have been no cases," Hunt said.

"Our understanding is that other states have used it -- well, previously. I understand that Victoria has, I understand that New South Wales has sought data where it's had cases.

"The app is there. It serves its role."

A spokesperson for the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services said state public health officials have begun using the COVIDSafe app to help find close contacts of people who have tested positive.  

"On Monday evening, Victorian Public Health team identified a COVID-19 positive patient who had the COVIDSafe App registered on their phone," the spokesperson said.  

"The patient consented to Victoria using data on their phone which has been downloaded to look for potential contacts."

The legislation also prevents the government from knowing which state boasts the most COVIDSafe app downloads, or information such as from what age bracket app users belong to.

Must read: Australian poll finds 1 in 8 blame Bill Gates and 5G for coronavirus

"A lot of states have asked, 'Can we have the data as to how many downloads our state has had?', and the answer is no, we don't. When we put in place these protections, we were really serious. They're legislated by law," the minister said.

As of Wednesday morning, there have been 5.9 million downloads of the app. Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants at least 40% of Australia's population to install COVIDSafe.

At the time of writing, the World Health Organization reported that there have been over 4.7 million confirmed cases, with over 316,000 fatalities as a result of the virus. Australia is still reporting just over 7,000 cases and after losing another life overnight, the death toll now sits at 100.

There have been over 1 million COVID-19 tests undertaken in Australia and the country has seen social distancing restrictions lift in direct response to the positive response nationwide in efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.

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