Australia’s coronavirus contact tracing app, COVIDSafe, was sold as “digital sunscreen” with people encouraged by the Prime Minister to download the app in order to have life return to some form of normal.
There have been over 7 million downloads of the app, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s logged into, or being used by individuals that have the app taking up real estate on their phone.
The app has received scrutiny from the country’s security community from day one, and it has only accounted for a total of 17 cases found, with 81 close contacts of those 17 identified through the app, too. The Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 also previously said the app significantly under-delivered on Scott Morrison’s promise that the app would enable an opening up of the economy in a COVID safe manner.
As previously disclosed by the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), the app cost in excess of AU$5 million.
DTA CEO Randall Brugeaud told senators on Thursday night that the cost to keep the app’s lights on, so far, has been around AU$900,000.
“The spend to date on the app is AU$6,745,322.31, that’s to 31 January,” he said.
“That includes a combination of development, which is the actual build of the app, and the hosting of the app. So the breakdown is, for the development of the app, AU$5,844,182.51 and the hosting is AU$901,139.80.”
Brugeaud said COVIDSafe has moved into the “business as usual state”, which means the DTA simply applies “very small amounts of maintenance”.
“It costs about AU$100,000 per month to run the infrastructure and we’ve made a provision for about AU$200,000 per month to allow us to make future changes,” he said. “Now, that isn’t money that must be spent, but we’ve estimated about AU$200,000 a month for future feature changes that may be required by the Department of Health who is the business owner of the app.”
Labor Senator Nita Green asked why there was a need to continue sinking funds into an app that has barely been used.
“COVIDSafe was developed based on the health need and it will continue to be supported until we’re advised that capability is no longer required,” Brugeaud said.
“I know it seems like a small number, 17 … I think it was 774 detections that have occurred, but just think through 17 people going undetected, and what that might look like in terms of shutdowns,” Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston added.
“Even though it may seem like a small number, that could have had a very significant impact on the health outcomes or the economic outcomes for our country.”
Ruston said the app was designed at a time when it was thought Australia would have a lot more cases than it did.
“Not withstanding that, it was something that was put in place at the time, an unknown time, it has served a purpose, whether it has served as much of a purpose as perhaps it might otherwise — but, clearly the health officers, the CMOs in both Victoria and New South Wales have both indicated that they believe that the app has had provided a very positive opportunity and benefit to their states,” she said.
“It was a decision that was taken that has provided some value.”
Brugeaud said there could be more contacts located via the app, but legislation is preventing the government from having access to the data.
He also said, however, the app has received “very good feedback” from the tech community to help the DTA improve the app.
Digital vaccination record limbo
Last month, Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert touted a vaccination passport, a digital record confirming people have received the jab through the Australian Immunisation Register (AIR).
“They will have a record, they will have a digital and paper certificate. For some 89% of Australians that have a smartphone, they will be able to access that digital certificate in their smartphone, download it onto their phone as a permanent record,” Robert said at the time.
The certificate would be available, he said, through linking myGov and Medicare online services.
Brugeaud said the DTA has been working with Services Australia on a “range of enhancements” to myGov, including a release which is about to occur and will provide access through myGov to the AIR.
“That will provide access to the current immunisation record,” he said. “There are discussions currently underway in relation to the creation of a potential vaccination certificate, but that would be a question for Services Australia … we’re not leading the work on the vaccination certificate.”
Time ran out during Senate Estimates on Thursday night to hear testimony from Services Australia on the progress of the AIR.