A long-awaited report on the government’s COVIDSafe app has been released – but findings about its effectiveness have been redacted

A long-awaited report on the government’s COVIDSafe app has been released – but findings about its effectiveness have been redacted
The federal government’s report has removed any parts related to the effectiveness of the contact tracing app.
  • Following a Freedom of Information request, the federal government has released a report on how $10 million of taxpayer money was used to create the COVIDSafe contact tracing app.
  • However, sections of the report covering COVIDSafe’s effectiveness have been redacted, and only basic information and positive comments remain.
  • The app identified 17 close contacts in total since it launched in April 2020 that were not identified by manual contact tracers.
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The government has been forced to release a report into the effectiveness of its controversial COVIDSafe app, 15 months after it was launched as a solution to contact tracing efforts.

The report, which was released this week following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by The Canberra Times, has redacted the parts related to its effectiveness and comes nearly a year after the government was required to release it.

The government paid private contractors around $10 million for work on the app, which is still costing $60,000 per month to continue running.

Launched in April 2020, the COVIDSafe app uses a smartphone’s Bluetooth technology to log close contacts between users and then sends these to a national database, along with state health authorities if a user tests positive for COVID-19. 

This year, COVIDSafe has not identified any close contacts despite major outbreaks in NSW, Victoria and smaller outbreaks in other areas of the country. 

Additionally, it is not currently being used by NSW Health authorities, the only state where it identified close contacts since it was launched.  

Since launching, the app has identified 17 close contacts in total that were not identified by manual contact tracers, and a further 544 people were identified by health authorities after the app found a new exposure site at a NSW venue. 

The federal government’s report has removed any parts related to the effectiveness of the contact tracing app. The only elements left visible in the report detail the basics of how COVIDSafe works; its launch; and positive elements such as the quick timeframe it was developed.

However the FOI release does reveal that the COVIDSafe report was submitted to the Department of Health on March 30 this year.

Legislation enshrining privacy protections around the app requires the Department of Health to report on the operation and effectiveness of the app and the national database every six months.

It outlines that the report must be prepared “as soon as practicable after the end of each six-month period”, and must then be tabled in Parliament within 15 days of completion.

Despite this, there have been 17 sitting days since the report was completed and it has not been released — a contravention of the government’s legislative requirements.

Last year the Department of Health paid global research firm Abt Associates nearly $250,000 to complete the first of the six-monthly reports, covering April to October 2020.

“Our evaluation used a mix-methods and multidisciplinary approach blending perspectives from public health evaluation and technology reviews to examine available quantitative and qualitative evidence on the appropriateness, effectiveness and efficiency of the COVIDSafe app and the National COVIDSafe Database,” the report said.

“A high level technology review was undertaken according to the request for quotation which excluded COVIDSafe technological alternatives and recommendations for future innovations.”

The government redacted the sections mostly under s47C, an exemption that relates to information involving a “deliberative matter”, such as an opinion, advice or recommendation that has been obtained, prepared or recorded.

However this exemption is not meant to apply to reports of “scientific or technical experts…including reports expressing the opinions of such experts on scientific or technical matters”.

“As our technology review indicates, based on the parameters of knowledge and capabilities at the time of app launch, it is believed that the COVIDSafe app was the correct tool to employ,” the report stated.