The COVIDSafe app, downloaded by more than seven million times at the height of the pandemic, has been overhauled by the Morrison government ahead of a new Christmas advertising campaign to warn Australia against relaxing social distancing measures.
The app has been criticised for software glitches which undermined its effectiveness, particularly on Apple iPhones, with Victoria abandoning its use at the height of the second wave because it had not been integrated properly into its contact tracing process.
The COVIDSafe app has been downloaded more than 7 million times since March.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Government Service Minister Stuart Robert announced on Monday the app would now incorporate a new Bluetooth protocol called Herald to improve performance and better contribute to the identification of potential close contacts.
The $2 million app was built to help assist state and territory contact-tracing teams uncover close contacts of infected COVID-19 cases who may have been within 1.5 metres of them for more than 15 minutes in public places such as restaurants, cafes or shops.
Health authorities found it assisted in identifying close contacts not picked up through manual tracing, with NSW identifying 80 close contacts, including 17 contacts that weren’t identified by manually contact tracing.
In one instance, NSW's access to the App revealed a previously unrecognised exposure date from a venue which resulted in the identification of an additional 544 contacts, with two people from this group subsequently confirmed to have COVID-19.
In Victoria, 1851 positive cases have said they had the App and the Andrews government is against using it as part of its contact tracing process.
Mr Robert said the Digital Transformation Agency had been working with Apple and Google on incorporating the new protocol in the COVIDSafe App and performing extensive testing across all scenarios for both Android and iOS devices.
He said testing had shown an improved performance of all encounter logging under all phone conditions and will continue to work on more than 96 per cent of Apple and Android phones.
"The DTA has also been working with the Australian Cyber Security Centre to ensure the security of the new code meets the same stringent requirements as the previous versions of the COVIDSafe App"” he said.
New code is to be released on open-source site Github for community review this week, ahead of proposed incorporation into the app stores of Google and Apple.
He said the code would also be made available to other countries so they could benefit from the new technology.
Opposition health spokesman Chris Bowen has said Labor was supportive of any tool to ease the burden of the pandemic. But given Australia had recorded more than 27,000 cases of COVID-19 and uncovered hundreds of thousands of close contacts, he said the app was clearly ineffective.
"This app has been a huge bungle," he said last month.
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