NSW Health confirmed it has barely used Australia’s COVIDSafe app

It was billed as the magic key that would unlock the nation’s economy and protect the nation from a second wave of the coronavirus.

Just weeks ago, Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed the COVIDSafe app was so important he linked it directly with whether economic restrictions could be safely lifted.

“We need that tool so that we can open up the economy. And that’s why it’s so important,” he said.

“So if you haven’t downloaded the app yet, download it. If you know someone who hasn’t downloaded the app yet, and you have, encourage them to do so.

“Because, if you’re doing that, then that is enabling the national cabinet to be able to ease these restrictions.”

But five weeks after the app was launched with great fanfare, NSW Health has confirmed it has barely used the app.

Partly, that’s due to the low levels of community transmission, cases where the source of the outbreak is not known.

“As new cases in NSW have predominantly been in people in hotel quarantine in the past 13 days, we have had limited opportunity to use the app during this time,’’ a NSW Health spokesman told news.com.au.

Instead, the tried and true virus hunters within NSW Health have painstakingly gone through patient’s known contacts.

“The app complements the rigorous system of contact tracing undertaken by expert teams of 150 people across NSW Health. Members of a contact tracing team can, and have, accessed app data using strict privacy rules,’’ a spokesman said.

But the number of times NSW Health have used the app? Try a number that’s less than a dozen.

“So far, data has been accessed fewer than 10 times,’’ the spokesman said.

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Across Australia, the COVIDSafe app has been used in less than 30 coronavirus cases.

That’s despite hundreds of new cases being detected since the software was launched in April.

Victoria is the only other state that has used the app in an estimated 18 cases.

The COVIDSafe app has not been used in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory or in the nation’s capital, Canberra.

In a number of cases, the app could not be used for contact tracing because the infected person had never downloaded the app.

Two of the most recent cases have been in NSW schools – Waverley and Moriah colleges – but the source of infection remains a mystery.

The good news is that no students contracted the virus from two infected students, but the bad news is that the source remains unknown.

Despite the fact the COVIDSafe app has been used less than ten times in NSW, Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy has repeatedly insisted that contact-tracing capacity had to be improved before restrictions were eased.

“We’ve proven that we’re tracing contacts very quickly at the moment with those small numbers of cases, and the methodology is really up to speed — except for one thing,” he said last month.

“Except for the app uptake. We need the app uptake to be higher before we can say that final piece in the jigsaw puzzle of contact tracing is there.”

Millions of Australians have now downloaded the app, which cost taxpayers $1.5 million to design and rollout.

But last week, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly argued that while the COVIDSafe app was designed with mass gatherings in mind, he was concerned that the take-up was still not high enough for it to be effective at the Black Lives Matter protests.

“That is exactly what it is designed to do, pick up cases when you do not know people around you,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know how many people who were at the protest may have had the app on the phone, so it would rely on that.

“We’ve had a very good uptake of the COVIDSafe app but the majority of people who have mobile phones have not downloaded the app so far. I certainly would encourage people to reconsider that because this is exactly how it would be helpful.

“The reason why we brought the app into being in the first place and pushed it so hard in press conferences and other times is exactly to aid the contact tracing effort and to decrease the risk of widespread community transmission leading to a second wave of the pandemic.

“So, yes, I would be very much relieved if we had a larger increase in downloads of the app over the next week or two.”

Samantha Maiden is news.com.au’s national political editor | @samanthamaiden

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