Introduction by Croakey: The Australian Government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly today announced that all states and territories have signed up to allow use of the COVIDSafe app.
This digital contact tracing tool was developed by the government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and has attracted some controversy from experts and health groups, particularly in relation to its privacy and equity implications:
There have also been some reports of the app interfering with other health technologies:
One issue that everyone agrees on is the importance of providing consumers with accurate information so they can make informed choices.
The Pearcy Foundation, an independent group of ICT experts, has also released a detailed paper on the app, which addresses privacy issues and identifies the following three factors that will determine its success:
- Trust: Do people trust the Government not to misuse the data the app collects?
- Effectiveness: Will the app do what it promises? Is it easy to use?
- Education: Will enough people know about the app to even consider downloading it?
Below, Nadia Levin, CEO and Managing Director of Research Australia, presents her organisation’s position on the app, arguing that it is an important public health tool for minimising the impact of the pandemic, at least until a vaccine becomes available.
Nadia Levin writes:
There are 115 COVID-19 vaccine candidates sitting in laboratories around the world. The very nature of scientific discovery means that almost all of these candidates will fail; and while hopefully at least one of these will be successful, a vaccine is months or years away.
With the end point of this pandemic still very much unknown, we cannot reasonably endeavour to rely on the vaccine alone. In the meantime, Australians have done a wonderful job flattening the curve by following the advice of public health experts to stay safe and practice social distancing.
However, social distancing has obvious downsides as Australians, and the economy, struggle to shoulder the current restrictions.
State and Federal Governments have commenced the inevitable lifting of social distancing restrictions and are now looking to other tools to keep Australians healthy and to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The COVIDSafe app can and should be one of those tools.
Support and concerns
Those at the service delivery end of the health and medical pipeline, such as the Australian Medical Association, have thrown their support behind implementation of the COVIDSafe App.
At the other end of the pipeline, some researchers have raised ethical concerns. Effective health policy comes from thoughtful implementation and evaluation; however the fast and effective implementation of health policy must be balanced against risks rather than be entirely driven by them.
While it is useful to consider the contexts and risks of other countries’ use of contact tracing apps, a study of other nations’ experiences has limited use as the efficacy of these apps is subject to a plurality of cultural, economic and social variables.
As health and medical researchers, it is our sector’s inclination to question proposed public health solutions; after all, we know the best healthcare is delivered by a multidisciplinary team working on an outcome from multiple angles.
However, evaluation and vetting of the COVIDSafe app should not be confused as a denouncement of the efficacy of this promising contact tracing tool.
Contact tracing is not new
The COVIDSafe app might be a new public health tool used by Australian governments but contact tracing is not. A large number of people have (or will at some point) participate in the lengthy process that contact tracing of infectious disease requires.
Tracing can take hours over the phone and even further resources are required post interview.
If you test positive, in-depth contact tracing will apply whether you have the COVIDSafe app or not and the only difference without the app will be the additional time and number of personnel it takes to do the tracing, and potential accuracy of the information gathered.
This gives us a chance to further limit the spread, with people unknowingly infecting others around them. It is a logical and reasonable approach. There’s nothing more to it. No subterfuge, no attempt to find out more about us in an underhand way. It is simply what it is – a contact tracing tool.
The COVIDSafe app is the next line of defence. And we need as many Australians as possible to embrace it. Use of the COVIDSafe app will save time, resources and money that can be positioned elsewhere not to mention provide invaluable insight into how we can fight future pandemics.
Evidence of community support
The majority of Australians consistently state that they are willing to share their health data to advance health and medicine. In Research Australia’s 2019 Consumer Poll 91% of Australians responded in support of sharing de-identified data, with 61% listing tracking of disease and disability as a valid purpose.
Australians are entitled to privacy and control over their personal information; and Whilst there will always be privacy concerns over the collection of data, whether on your personal phone or in a central location, the Australian Government has devised this app in good faith and with the aim of upholding Australians’ privacy rights.
Under current legislation that has now passed the Senate, misuse of data collected by the COVIDSafe app is punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $63,000 fine.
Privacy and civil rights organisations engaged with the Federal Government on the draft legislation and whilst supporting use of the COVIDSafe app, they raised valid concerns over the security of user data stored in the app’s central location.
These concerns no doubt encouraged Senate-negotiated changes to the bill that provided further clarity about what data is protected, how it is stored and accessed, and the app’s reporting requirements. This process evidences a democratic society that enables scrutiny and demands accountability.
Australians in their day to day lives share greater amounts of data for personal convenience and we hope they will do the same for the benefit of us all. Downloading and making use of the COVIDSafe app will save lives.
If you participate in your community, spend time with family, friends and colleagues, it’s not just about you. Let’s add it to the existing measures we are using in the COVID-19 fight so that we can return to a life more like the one we are used to.
Research Australia is the national peak body for Australian health and medical research, representing all stages of the research pipeline, from universities and medical research institutes through to health corporates, hospitals and consumers.