a hand holds a screen showing the message on the covidsafe app that it will no longer be collecting data
The COVIDSafe contact tracing app has been scrapped

The federal government’s COVIDSafe app has been scrapped just over two years after its launch.

But the $21 million platform, designed to trace close contacts of people who tested positive for COVID, had problems from the start.

What was COVIDSafe?

When COVIDSafe launched in late April 2020, it was touted as a critical part of the government’s plan to reopen the economy.

The app relied on a bluetooth signal which transmitted at regular intervals to make contact with other users nearby.

If a person tested positive for COVID-19, state and territory authorities could request access to the phone log to work out who else may have been infected.

But the lower the number of people actively using it, the less effective it was – and it wasn’t guaranteed to work for those who did.

So, did COVIDSafe work? 

When it launched, Australians were told they didn’t have to do anything special to get COVIDSafe to work.

But the then-government’s own testing showed that when it went live, COVIDSafe only worked effectively about a quarter of the time or less on locked iPhones.

Communications between locked Androids and iPhones was also poor – although this later improved.

The app’s effectiveness was hampered by bugs which had the potential to limit its core function – particularly at big events, according to experts.

It also took until late 2021 for COVIDSafe to be updated to track the more infectious Delta variant.

Months before, experts had warned the app’s 15-minute exposure window – the time frame used to define a close contact – was “very useless” in tracking the more transmissible variant

In December 2021 Mark Butler — who was then the shadow health minister — called for it to be scrapped after it was revealed to have identified just two close contacts nationally in six months.

Mr Butler is now the Health Minister, and figures released by his office on Wednesday show just 17 close contacts that had not already been picked up by manual contact tracers were identified in more than two years.

In its lifetime, the app clocked just two unique COVID cases.

Did anybody use COVIDSafe?

At its launch, the government said it would need 40 per cent of Australians – 10 million people – to use COVIDSafe for it to be a success

But that number has rarely been mentioned since.

By the time of its decommissioning, there were 7.9 million registrations, according to Mr Butler, who called it a “failed app”. 

The vast majority of sign-ups – more than 6 million – were in the first few weeks.

But the app relied on active users, and people consenting to their positive test results being used, to work.

Illustration of someone holding a phone with the government's COVIDSafe app open with parliament house in the background.
The app cost $21 million but detected only two unique COVID cases.(ABC News: Emma Machan)

Fewer than 800 users consented to their data to be collected, according to Mr Butler’s office.

In September 2021, as COVID cases spiked in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT, the ABC revealed the app had not uncovered any close contacts in those outbreaks.

In fact, the ACT never used data from the app at all, instead opting to rely on its own contact tracers.

How much did taxpayers pay for COVIDSafe?

The previous federal government entered into contracts worth nearly $10 million for work on the app until the end of 2021. 

It refused to join Apple and Google’s joint contract tracing system, which was adopted by more than 50 jurisdictions around the world. 

The total cost of the Australian app, which had a monthly operating price tag of $100,000, now sits at $21 million. 

Of that, $10 million went to develop the app, a further $7 million on advertising and marketing, $2.1 million on upkeep and more than $2 million on staff.

What happens now?

Users are now being asked to uninstall COVIDSafe.

Doing so will delete all their data, according to a message on the app.

The Health Department will no longer gather personal data, and the data gathered via the app so far will be deleted as soon as possible, Mr Butler said.

The app will be formally decommissioned on August 16.

Source – https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-08-10/covidsafe-app-scrapped-what-went-wrong/101317746