Redacted Report Hides Data On COVIDSafe App’s Effectiveness


Staff Writer

The Australian Government has contravened its own legislative requirements by failing to table the latest COVIDSafe report within 15 sitting days of the report’s receipt.

Since the Department of Health received the latest COVIDSafe report on March 30, 17 sitting days have elapsed.

The lapse has come to light following the release of the highly redacted COVIDSafe report this week following a Freedom of Information (FOI) by a Canberra media outlet.

Having released the report under FOI provisions, widespread redactions block out all information pertaining to the COVIDSafe app’s effectiveness.

The Australian Government launched the voluntary COVIDSafe app (COVIDSafe) on 27 April 2020. Legislation requires the Department of Health to table a report on the app’s operation and effectiveness every six months.

The Department of Health declines to provide user numbers concerning the app. But it does say there have been almost 7.5 million registrations.

The COVIDSafe app works by regularly transmitting a Bluetooth “ping” to other users. While these pings, or digital handshakes, are created every 60 seconds and sent to a central server, that data is filtered to focus on users who’ve been within 1.5 metres of another user for at least 15 minutes.

The app, which cost millions to develop and now to costs $60,000 per month to maintain, had not been updated to deal with the infectious Delta COVID variant as of early July.

The released COVIDSafe Report, which covers the April to October 2020 period, is 18 pages long, with all hard data redacted. Three pages of data titled “Effectiveness” with subtitles pertaining to New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland, has had all content removed. This time period covers the COVID outbreak in Victoria that killed nearly 800 people and saw Melbourne locked down for 112 days.

In notes accompanying the redacted report, the Department of Health says the external consultants engaged to prepare the report, Abt Associates, examined the appropriateness of the app’s design, barriers and enablers of use, and the app’s efficiency.

A draft report was provided to the Department of Health in late 2020. The report cost taxpayers nearly a quarter of a million dollars to prepare. The final report followed in late March 2021.

The Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Act 2020 requires the final report to be tabled to Parliament within 15 sitting days. This week’s release of the redacted report reveals this did not happen.

With jurisdictions around Australia implementing QR check-in codes, the COVIDSafe app got little use from authorities from the outset. The failure of the app to get traction and use is a sensitive issue for the Australian Government.

Since the app’s rollout, it has identified 17 close contacts across New South Wales. Two months ago, Victoria’s Health Minister, Martin Foley, said he had no knowledge of Victorian contract tracers using the app. A Victorian Health official later said data from the app was accessed if it was available. However, the same official noted the app revealed no close contacts Victoria’s own tracing technologies hadn’t already flagged.