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The COVIDSafe app has cost $9m to date, but it hasn't uncovered any close contacts during the current outbreaks

ABC Health logo ABC Health 30/09/2021 Exclusive by Dan Conifer

The federal government's COVIDSafe mobile app has not helped uncover close contacts during current COVID-19 outbreaks, the ABC has confirmed.

The multi-million-dollar COVIDSafe app was touted as a critical tool to help contact tracing when it launched last year, but has faded from the public consciousness.

The software relies on Bluetooth handshakes between devices, so its usefulness has plunged as fewer people have been actively using the app.

New South Wales has been fighting a wave of COVID-19 cases since June, Victoria since May and the Australian Capital Territory since August.

NSW Health has recorded more than 55,000 cases since June, but has not accessed data from the COVIDSafe app when piecing together their movements.

"It has not been necessary to use the COVIDSafe app with any case clusters in 2021," a spokeswoman said.

Victoria has recorded more than 15,000 cases since late May, and identified about 200,000 primary and secondary close contacts.

COVIDSafe has not identified any contacts that were not otherwise found using other contact tracing methods over the past four months, the state's health department said.

The ACT, which has recorded about 800 cases since last month, said it had "never used COVIDSafe app data" in contact tracing.

"[ACT Health's] systems have met our needs to identify cases and contacts in an efficient and timely manner," a spokesman said.

State and territory contact tracers conduct interviews with people who test positive and examine their QR code check-ins.

Public health officials can also use a person's credit card transaction history and public transport data to piece together where they have been.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt's office said the COVIDSafe app "is a tool for the state and territory public health officials to use".

"It is their decision on how it is integrated into their contact tracing systems," a spokeswoman said.

Queensland has recorded about 800 cases this year and is currently experiencing an outbreak, but the state has not accessed COVIDSafe data in about 12 months.

"The COVIDSafe App has been used twice in Queensland to complement contact tracing efforts," a Queensland Health spokesman said.

"There has been one contact identified through the app to date, and no positive cases."

Since the start of the pandemic, COVIDSafe has not identified any close contacts in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia or Tasmania.

Most Australians no longer use the app

The COVIDSafe app works by transmitting a Bluetooth signal at regular intervals to make contact with other users.

If a person tests positive to COVID-19, state and territory authorities can request access to that phone log to work out who else may have been infected.

More than 7 million individuals registered to use the app since it was launched but only a fraction of those people are still actively using it.

COVIDSafe's reputation was tarnished by technological issues, including problems with the app's operation on Apple iPhones when it was running in the background.

The federal government has refused to move to a digital contact tracing system jointly developed by Apple and Google, which has been adopted by more than 50 jurisdictions globally.

The COVIDSafe app has cost taxpayers more than $9 million to date, the Senate heard today.

Number of close contacts identified by COVIDSafe app

The federal Health Department said the app had identified 81 close contacts nationwide since the start of the pandemic, including 17 not otherwise known to state officials.

The app proved useful during a July 2020 cluster associated with the Mounties club in Sydney's south-west, a department spokeswoman said.

"Two people in this group presented for testing and were subsequently confirmed to have COVID-19," the spokeswoman said.

Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten said the cost of COVIDSafe would soon crash through the $10 million mark.

"Based on the evidence at hand, that's cost the taxpayer $537,325 for each of the 17 unique cases it has detected," he said.

Six COVID-19 cases in Western Australia have consented to having their phones COVIDSafe data uploaded but no contacts were found.

South Australia has not accessed data from the app.

Tasmania has had no locally acquired cases since the app was rolled out.

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