Govt forced to release overdue COVIDSafe report

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Govt forced to release overdue COVIDSafe report

But redacts most of it.

The federal government has been forced to release a heavily redacted version of a report evaluating the effectiveness of its COVIDSafe contact tracing app after failing to produce the report itself.

But the document covering the first six months of the app's operation is of little value, with swathes of information relating to its usefulness during the first stage of the pandemic removed.

The independent report, released following a freedom of information request by the Canberra Times, comes almost 18 months after the app was introduced and 12 months after the reporting period.

Under legislation governing COVIDSafe, the Department of Health is required to report on the operation and effectiveness of the app and the national COVIDSafe data store every six months.

Following completion of the report, the Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Inforamtion) Act 2020 then requires that the report be handed down in parliament within 15 sitting days.

Despite this requirement, the government has not publicly released the first six-monthly report.

Documents released under FOI show the department engaged global consulting and research firm Abt Associates and its technology partner, Brisbane-based systems integrator Bdna, to evaluate COVIDSafe from September 2020.

The resulting draft report, which cost almost $234,000 and covered the period between 16 May 2020 to 15 November 2020, was received by the department in early December 2020, according to a ministerial information brief released alongside the report.

The external assessors sought to assess the efficiency, including cost of the app against other comparable apps like Singapore's TraceTogether app, as well as appropriateness – such as the design and uptake – and implementation.

“A mixed-methods approach was used drawing on public health evaluation and technology review methodology to examine available evidence on the appropriateness, effectiveness and efficiency of COVIDSafe,” the report states.

“Our evaluation focuses on three states, NSW, Victoria and Queensland, chosen in consultation with the [department] as the states with the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the country and with PHUs [public health units] who most use the datastore.”

But while the report released under FOI notes “the effectiveness of the app is predicated on its ability to identify individuals”, almost all information relating to the app’s effectiveness has been redacted.

Most remaining information included is either public or highlights positive aspects of COVIDSafe such as the government's “commendable achievement” developing “a new digital contact tracing tool, for a new virus” in a “matter of weeks”.

The redacted report makes not mention of the fact COVIDSafe has only identified 17 close contacts in NSW that would not have been found via any other means or that it is now 'rarely' use for contact tracing in Victoria.

“As our technology review indicates, based on the parameters of knowledge and capabilities at the time of app launch, it is believed that the COVIDSafe app was the correct tool to employ,” the report concludes.

Earlier this year, the Digital Transformation Agency refused to release copies of cloud hosting bills or architecture diagrams for COVIDSafe after it came to light that it was spending $100,000 a month with Amazon Web Services.

The DTA has since revised down the hosting bill estimate to approximately $75,000 a month after some performance “tuning”, and expects this cost will fall as low as $60,000 a month by the end of July.

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