Victoria ditched COVIDSafe app but is using it again

Secretary of the Department of Health Dr Brendan Murphy says the state previously saw no value in it and was under intense pressure due to the surge in cases.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

Former Australian chief medical officer and now Secretary of the Department of Health, Dr Brendan Murphy, has told the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 that Victoria had previously ditched using Australia's contact-tracing COVIDSafe app.

"For a period of time, they were feeling so pressured that they decided not to use the app," Murphy said on Tuesday morning.

The former CMO reasoned that this was due to the state being under the pump, in addition to the coronavirus outbreak occurring in a community that had low download rates and where transmission was occurring at family gatherings.

"Because they were so pressured, they kept going without using the app, they have now started using the app again, and we hope to see some of the successes we've seen in New South Wales recently with identifying otherwise unidentified contacts," he said.

"The public health unit, I think, felt that for a period of time they because they hadn't found value in it in those early cases they did stop using it for a while, we believe. But they have been very clear that they committed to using it at the moment."

Murphy took on notice that there was a period of time Victoria was not using the app. He also explained how often data from the app was accessed.

Due to a resurgence in coronavirus cases, Victoria has instigated stage 4 restrictions which will see parts of industries such as retail, manufacturing, and administration shut down onsite operations for six weeks. Impacted businesses need to close by the end of Wednesday, August 5.

Over the weekend, it was reported that NSW had found a pair of cases from 544 people identified via the COVIDSafe app.

"As at 12:30pm on 4 August 2020, data from the COVIDSafe app has been accessed 33 times by NSW Health," a spokesperson told ZDNet on Tuesday.

"14 close contacts have been identified using app data who were not also identified through manual contact tracing, or whose contact details were unavailable through manual contact tracing.

"All 14 have been requested to self-isolate as close contacts. To date, none of these 14 close contacts have tested positive to COVID-19."

The spokesperson added that app data led to "a previously unrecognised exposure date" from a known venue, and this resulted in the 544 additional contacts, from which the positive pair were identified.

Despite the COVIDSafe app having a number of problems, the minister responsible has continued to stand by it.

"The app is working exactly as it intended to be, it's designed there to assist with manual tracing, designed to augment it, it's been used over 300 times now by health officials to ensure that manual tracing is picking up all the various contacts, so it's doing exactly what it's supposed to do," Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert said in July.

"We're working with Apple and Google to get the handset Bluetooth signal as strong as possible, but that doesn't mean it's not effective, doesn't mean it's not working."

Updated at 1:00pm AEST, 4 August 2020: added comments from NSW Health

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