Victoria’s contact tracing team had stopped using COVIDSafe altogether for a period during Melbourne’s outbreak as it provided little value, the former chief medical officer has revealed.
During a Senate hearing on the Australian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the former Chief Medical Officer Dr Brendan Murphy said Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) had stopped using the COVIDSafe app for a period of time.
The app, which has been downloaded nearly seven million times and has cost an estimated $2 million, has only been used to detect a handful of unknown close contacts in the state despite Victoria having more than 6,000 active cases.
Dr Murphy explained that the department felt so “pressured” it decided to stop using the app to extract close contact data in order to find potential coronavirus transmissions in the community.
Adding to the low download rate among the affected community at the time, Dr Murphy said the early transmission in Victoria occurred mostly at family gatherings, meaning it was easier for contact tracing teams to identify close contacts.
“The public health unit [DHHS], I think, felt that for a period of time … because they hadn’t found value in it in those early cases, they did stop using it for a while, we believe,” Dr Murphy told the committee.
“But they have been very clear that they are committed to using it at the moment.”
It’s unclear when and how long that period was for exactly but Dr Murphy said he would take it on notice to confirm at a later date.
The DHHS said unknown close contacts has reduced since tougher restrictions have been put in place but it still encourages Victorians to use the app.
“DHHS continues to use the COVIDsafe app in our work to contain the spread of the virus, and encourages all Victorians to download the app to their phone,” a DHHS spokesperson told Gizmodo Australia in a statement.
“While the number of unknown close contacts has significantly reduced since tougher restrictions came into effect, the app will continue to play an important role in the response to the pandemic going forward.”
It’s understood the affected period lasted for around two weeks while procedures were being formulated with interstate contact tracing teams. It’s since been resolved.
COVIDSafe data has been accessed by contact tracing teams in NSW and Victoria
Back in late May, one month after the app had been released, only Victoria had confirmed to have accessed the app’s data for contact tracing purposes.
It was, in part, due to considerable drop in daily cases around the country while Victoria had continued to experience small clusters. Weeks later, NSW and Victoria’s contact tracing teams both confirmed they had accessed the data a handful of times but no previously unidentified contacts had been found.
But a lot has changed since late May and early June when Australia’s average daily count remained relatively low. Since then, Health Minister Greg Hunt has said the app has picked up 200 cases by mid-July and several hundred more in New South Wales since.
Still, if the app has become more of a burden than it’s worth for inundated contact tracing teams in Victoria, it might be time to go back to the drawing board.
Gizmodo Australia has contacted the Digital Transformation Agency to understand when it was made aware of Victoria’s issues and if it provided the state with any assistance during this time. We’ll update once it responds.