“As for the Apple Google app, it fundamentally changes the locus of control and takes out the middle person and the middle person is the contact tracer, the people who have kept us safe,” Dr Coatsworth told Channel Ten’s The Project. “There’s no way we’re shifting to a platform that will take out the contact tracers.”
So far, the COVIDSafe app has not identified any close contacts of a person infected with coronavirus who had not already been found through manual contact tracing.
On the COVIDSafe app’s launch day, 6696 Australians had coronavirus. Since then, a further 990 cases have been identified, many returned travellers. Of the 990, only 10 people in NSW and 30 in Victoria have had the COVIDSafe app and have allowed health officials to look at their close contact data.
Victoria had said it used the app to discover one contact who had not been identified by manual tracers. However, that person was subsequently ruled not to be a “close contact”.
Switzerland last week became among the first in the world to roll-out the Apple-Google version, first to members of its army, hospital workers and civil servants before a wider rollout.
Latvia is also pursuing the model supported by the tech giants, as is Britain, whose Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week the country was delaying the development of its own app and moving to the Apple-Google version because “no country currently has a functioning track and trace app”. Ireland also has launched its own app using the Apple and Google model.
Despite this, Dr Coatsworth said Australia would “absolutely not” switch to the tech giants’ supported version, which, unlike the Australian’s government’s app, does not require contact information to be supplied by default for state and territory health officials to contact you.
The Apple-Google model does, however, allow governments to alert people of coronavirus exposure and retrospectively request people’s contact details so that contact tracers can get in touch with them should it be found that they may have been exposed to a person infected with the coronavirus.
Dr Coatsworth rejected criticism Australia’s app had not been able to identify close contacts of those infected with the coronavirus that contact tracers hadn’t already found through phone interviews.
“I have bought into the app and I continue to buy into the app and think it’s a great platform,” he said. “Our manual contact tracers, our disease detectives are really excellent at their job.
“At the moment they’re performing as well as the COVIDSafe app.
“We need to focus on the fact that IT will be part of the method.
“The app will identify cases eventually that haven’t been determined by the contact tracers,” he said.
“If the numbers were to increase, then the contact tracing app comes into its own as an important adjunct.”
Australia’s existing app has been plagued with issues because it attempts to make use of an unsupported method of Bluetooth technology.
As The Verge tech reporter James Vincent explains, “both Google and Apple restrict how apps can use Bluetooth in iOS and Android”.
“They don’t allow developers to constantly broadcast Bluetooth signals, as that sort of background broadcast has been exploited in the past for targeted advertising“.
As a middle-ground, Apple and Google worked on rewriting the rules but in order to make use of their technology, governments need to agree to a privacy-first approach that means potential close contacts of infected people can be alerted via apps that they may have been exposed to coronavirus, but their contact details aren’t provided to health officials by default.
Ben Grubb is a Desk Editor/Locum Homepage Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald.