Keep plugging that app

The Australian government's much-vaunted, much-plugged COVIDSafe app came under the spotlight this week as Senate Estimates hearings got under way in Canberra and the opportunity to grill health department officials on their COVID-19 response, including their thoughts on Victoria's contact tracing capabilities, presented itself.

Labor has heavily criticised the app since its release and its seems with good reason, as it doesn't appear to work very well. The opposition overplayed their hand a tad with claims that it had only found two positive contacts at a cost of $70 million, as that figure turned out to be vastly overinflated. Department of Health assistant secretary Caroline Edwards clarified that the app had cost $5 million to develop and maintain, with a further $6.95 million to plug it.

Whether that $12 million has been of any value or not is still debatable. The app has certainly been used by contact tracing teams, mainly in NSW, but Victoria doesn't seem to have found it helpful. There is still some confusion over exactly why Victoria stopped using it in June, when the second wave arrived and began to swamp the state, but Ms Edwards says it is now fully integrated into Victoria's track and trace system, which everyone agreed is functioning much better now after introducing some new tools and technology.

Asked about the app's worth this week, Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert said he thought it was performing “exceptionally well”. As he is the minister in charge of it, he would say that, wouldn't he. DoH secretary Brendan Murphy said it was fine, Queensland Health Minister Steven Myles said it was rubbish, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said it was a bit disappointing, and Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton said that while it hadn't delivered as much as hoped, everyone should keep using it anyway.

A lot of the reporting from the technology media seemed to suggest that a change to the exposure notification API developed by Google and Apple would solve some problems, but even this technology is having its own issues. Users in the UK reported this week that notifications appeared on their phone but disappeared when they opened the app. Other countries are having problems with their apps too, with France rebranding its bespoke model, which appears to be a bit of a failure, as only 2.8 million people have downloaded it. Even COVIDSafe has had seven million downloads.

New Zealand's QR code-based COVID tracer app hasn't really fared much better and they are still trialling a more invasive wearable CovidCard in Rotorua, but that might not prove palatable due to privacy concerns. The good news for the re-elected Labour government is that it now counts as a new MP the infectious disease expert Ayesha Verrall, who carried out a rapid review of NZ's contact tracing capability in April and whose expertise is sure to prove invaluable.

In other COVID news, the FBI this week warned of an imminent threat from the crooks behind the Ryuk ransomware, who appear to be launching a new campaign targeting US hospitals. Four hospital groups have already been hit this week, just as the US election campaign reaches its zenith and as the pandemic in the US gets even uglier. Cases have spiked in 47 out of 50 states and there are concerns it is completely out of hand. Ryuk has been used to target healthcare providers here as well, with Victorian hospitals hit last year and two aged care providers affected just in the last couple of months. The threat from the US encouraged CERT NZ to issue a warning for our region yesterday.

Our top story this week was Nathan Pinskier's article on some of the challenges that still face the roll out of electronic prescriptions. Dr Pinskier makes some excellent points about how the token system is not a completely practical one, and he outlines some fears about how workflow in particular may not have been properly thought through. There were some pretty good comments on the article too.

Our poll last week asked whether you thought the eScripts roll out had been successful. The results show a split between those who think eScripts have been a success and those who think it is too early to tell, with 47 per cent saying yes and 44 per cent thinking we were jumping the gun. Few, however, thought it was an outright failure.

That brings us to our poll for this week, one that we have asked before but thought we should revisit due to the debate this week:

Has Australia's COVIDSafe app delivered value for money?

Vote here and feel free to leave your comments below.

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