On August 9, 2022, the Australian COVIDSafe app was officially retired and all features were removed. People were encouraged to uninstall the app. Have messages about its closure made international news.
When discontinuing COVIDSafe, Health Secretary Mark Butler said the “The Albanian government has acted to remove the wasteful and ineffective COVIDSafe app” and accused the former government of wasting “more than $21 million in taxpayers’ money on this failed app”.
Was COVIDSafe a panacea, according to the previous administration, or a total failure, as the current administration would have us believe?
The writing was on the wall
Designed to help manual contract tracers find positive COVID cases, the app was launched in April 2020.
Rewind to the early months of the pandemic and Australians were encouraged by then Prime Minister Scott Morrison to download the app, which he compared to applying sunscreen when going outside and a “ticket to open up our economy”.
For some, it was already clear in 2020 that the app would not live up to expectations. It also disappeared from politicians’ glossaries, and there were more and more calls for it to be scrapped in 2021.
Overall, this week’s decommissioning of the app shouldn’t come as a surprise — there was also a strict sunset clause included in the law when it was first developed.
But is there a silver lining – can we learn anything from the COVIDSafe experiment? Here’s our scorecard.
Some pass, some fail
PASS: Automate manual contact tracing
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, most public health systems relied on manual contact tracing, a tool that many initially believed would be ineffective in controlling and controlling a rapidly spreading disease on a large scale.
One of the goals of COVIDSafe was to automate the manual work, to aid the efforts of contact tracers at scale. This goal has been achieved, although its value and effectiveness are questionable, as we discuss below.
PAS: mass adoption
Few systems needed to be implemented as quickly and widely as COVIDSafe did. The app has reached the initial expectation target threshold of 40%. There were more than 7.7 million downloads, with 3 million Australians download the app by the end of April 2020.
Getting so many Australians to download new and controversial technology is an unparalleled achievement. While the number of downloads doesn’t tell us how many people were actively using the app, it does show some success in getting people to at least download and engage with the app.
An important challenge was also to make the app accessible to a wide range of people with different levels of technical aptitude. Despite its questionable effectiveness, technical and registration issuesCOVIDSafe has struck a balance between aesthetically pleasing and relatively user-friendly.
FAIL: Improving the efficiency and accuracy of contact tracing
The COVIDSafe app only helped identify two positive cases not reported by manual contact tracing. This can be partly attributed to the success of the Australian suppression strategy – low numbers of cases in 2020 meant that the app had not been fully “wild” tested.
As of November 2021, only 792 COVID positive COVIDSafe users agreed to upload their data to the national database. Australian states also introduced QR code scanning in public places (such as transport, shops, sports venues, cafes, hotels and restaurants) which overlapped with the role of the app.
Independent evaluation suggests COVIDSafe was “an extra step that increased workload” [for contact tracing staff] without adding value”.
FAIL: Ease restrictions, open economy and return to ‘normal’
The Morrison government has framed COVIDSafe as an integral part of its plan to lift restrictions on society and open up the economy. COVIDSafe has failed to deliver on this as much of Australia continued to face severe restrictions and remained in lockdown until the end of 2021.
FAIL: Suppressing COVID-19 and its spread
Another widely popular goal of COVIDSafe was to control the spread of the disease. Despite early optimism around such appsthis goal was not achieved.
It was unrealistic to expect that a contact tracing app would suppress the spread of a virus whose epidemiological features evolve over time.
Lessons for the future
Getting systems right is a process. Understanding COVIDSafe’s failures and successes is a useful starting point to start the conversation about what “digital contact tracing 2.0” should look like.
A techno-optimistic ideology – the idea that there is a technical solution to every complex problem – was the primary basis for the development of COVIDSafe. Civil servants used metaphors such as “digital vaccine”, “sunscreen” and “road to recovery”, suggesting the app would protect individuals from contamination and return life to “normal”.
When developing health applications, the government should use “digital too” rather than a “digital first” approach. Health apps, especially new and quickly implemented apps, should not be confused with medical solutions. Otherwise, we risk unrealistic expectations and loss of public confidence.
Understanding the needs
COVIDSafe showed that digitizing a manual contact tracing process does not necessarily make it more effective. In a July 2021 report to parliament, then Health Minister Greg Hunt allowed “The use of existing, well-established tracking processes has limited the need for public health officials to rely on COVIDSafe.”
When defining the scope and purpose of an app, we need a better understanding of everyone’s requirements and existing manual processes.
Manage data volume
When COVIDSafe was developed and launched, a lot of attention was paid to privacy issues, Bluetooth connectivity, accessibility and mass adoption.
But it seems that less attention was paid to the needs of public health personnel. The app complicated the work of contact tracers who were quickly overwhelmed by data volume. Public health personnel should be given effective tools to manage incoming data; in this case it would have helped to figure out which encounters to check for possible close contacts.
Privacy Considerations were central to the development of COVIDSafe, with a series of measures applied to the app, its legislation and its use.
Future apps should be developed to give people control over the collection and sharing of their mobility data, so that users can select the right options based on their personal privacy preferences.
So, was COVIDSafe worth the investment?
Australia wasn’t the only country to develop a contact tracing app. Multiple German speaking countries, France, India and Singapore developed similar apps with varying degrees of success, while the United Kingdom, Italy, Latvia and others made us of the exposure reporting system Apple and Google developed.
COVIDSafe reflects the urgency of early 2020 and the strong support for such technology from epidemiologists and other medical professionals.
It was also a bit like taking out insurance that we didn’t quite need: initial public acceptance didn’t match a low positive case numbers. It’s unclear whether a similar app deployed in 2022 would have led to a different outcome.
In general, it is difficult to expect a financial return from such an emergency investment. The app gave some people hope and comfort during the dark times of 2020, arguably a social return on investment.
- 0.1 The writing was on the wall
- 1 Some pass, some fail
- 2 Lessons for the future