Covid-19: Australia’s next step in virus battle is contact-tracing app

Australia launched a contact-tracing mobile app on April 26 to boost its efforts to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

COVIDSafe will record the digital handshake a mobile phone makes with other users of the app, according to a government statement. If someone catches the virus, they can then share that contact data with health authorities to speed up tracing.

“We need the COVIDSafe app as part of the plan to save lives and save livelihoods,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in the statement. “The more people who download this important public health app, the safer they and their family will be, the safer their community will be and the sooner we can safely lift restrictions and get back to business and do the things we love.”

A broader testing regime and the contact-tracing app are seen as necessary for Australia to consider relaxing restrictions on the economy. The government has stressed the data will only be used by health officials and won’t be accessible by police or other federal or state agencies.

Secure information

The app records the date and time, distance and duration of any contact. All information collected is securely encrypted and stored on the user’s phone but no one, not even the user, can access it, Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert said in the statement.

“Unless and until a person is diagnosed with Covid-19, no contact information collected in the app is disclosed or able to be accessed,” he said. “Once the person agrees and uploads the data, only the relevant state or territory public health officials will have access to information.”

Officials will only be able to access information for a close contacts – when a person has come within approximately 1.5 meters of another app user for 15 minutes or more.

A new determination issued by the Minister for Health under the Biosecurity Act will ensure information provided voluntarily through COVIDSafe will only be accessible for use by authorised state and territory health officials, according to the statement. Any other access or use will be a criminal offense.

An Australian Institute survey of about 1,000 people conducted last week showed 45% of respondents were willing to use the app while 28% said they wouldn’t. – Bloomberg