The handling of the COVID-19 app shows up a huge trust deficit

Questions remain despite the rapid take-up of the COVID-19 tracing app.

Questions remain despite the rapid take-up of the COVID-19 tracing app. Photo: AAP

The claims for the COVID-19 tracing app have convinced thousands of Australians to sign up in a rush that has even taken the government by surprise.

“Australians have responded magnificently” was the reaction of Health Minister Greg Hunt to the fact his five-day target of a million subscribers was reached in 12 hours.

Mr Hunt said they would help “find and alert anybody who may have been exposed to the virus. It means that they can be diagnosed and protected earlier, and it can protect our nurses and our doctors, our seniors and our vulnerable Australians”.

Given the extreme anxiety the pandemic has created in the community, why isn’t the app compulsory if this is what it can deliver?

We are, after all, talking about real life and death concerns.

We are also talking about getting “the economy back” and “our livelihoods back” as quickly as is safely possible is the way the Prime Minister put it at the weekend.

The chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, ties the successful uptake of the COVIDSafe app to his ability of advising the national cabinet on how quickly the economy-crushing restrictions can be lifted.

Professor Murphy would like to see a 50 per cent uptake. Mr Hunt is hoping for at least 40 per cent.

But before we get too carried away we should be aware that the designer of the Bluetooth tracing phone application, Jason Bay, warns it is not a panacea – it can give false positive or negative readings and also depends on the subscriber keeping it open on their phone.

Mr Bay, the senior director of Government Digital Services in Singapore, said his app “cannot replace manual contact tracing” but in a blog post said “for the foreseeable future” it could be only “a supplement”.

Indeed, the 20 per cent uptake in Singapore was not enough to prevent a second wave of infections.

Of course, in a crisis anything that can assist to get the country safely moving again is worth a shot and Scott Morrison two weeks ago was inclined to make smartphone users compulsorily install it.

Such was the backlash from the libertarians in his own ranks and human rights advocates, the Prime Minister quickly backed away.

The privacy concerns are real and this government has squandered the trust of the public with its past assurances of limitations on the data collection of individual Australians.

Evidence to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in February has revealed the mass surveillance scheme established six years ago is being widely abused in ways voters were assured would never happen.

Raids on journalists, whistleblowers outside of government, and using private data to publicly embarrass a Centrelink client are the more egregious examples.

The “mission creep” goes well beyond security agencies and is behind calls from the Human Rights Law Centre for tightly legislated boundaries on the use of the app.

The government is now promising to produce legislation when Parliament resumes in three weeks.

All of this for a voluntary scheme that, according to research by Oxford University, needs an 80 per cent uptake to get to the two-thirds of contacts needed to make a meaningful difference to limiting infection transmission.

Few can be optimistic that number of subscriptions will be reached, which makes you wonder why Mr Morrison isn’t using the enormous goodwill he has acquired from his leadership in the crisis to push for compulsion.

It suggests that even with a 68 per cent approval in Newspoll, the highest level since Kevin Rudd 12 years ago, Mr Morrison believes it is not enough to overcome the government’s trust deficit to do so.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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