COVIDSafe app: The $8 million ticket to the pub that has barely been used

The COVIDSafe app was marketed as 'our ticket to the pub'. But it has barely shouted a round.

The COVIDSafe app was marketed as 'our ticket to the pub'. But it has barely shouted a round. Photo: Getty

Prime Minister Scott Morrison sold it to Australians as our “ticket to a COVID-safe Australia”, but $8 million later the much-vaunted app has barely been used.

As Victoria endures its fourth lockdown and other states and territories remain on high alert, the cost of Australia’s COVIDSafe contact tracing app continues to mount.

COVIDSafe, which is designed to quickly alert users who may have had contact with a positive virus case, was initially marketed as the “digital sunscreen” that was essential to lifting lockdown restrictions.

In July, during a nationwide lockdown, the PM dangled the carrot of pubs potentially reopening if enough Australians downloaded it.

But 14 months later, it has been downloaded seven million times, equal to about 30 per cent of the population.

Even those who have downloaded it seem to forget it exists.

When asked this week if the COVIDSafe app had been used during Victoria’s current outbreak, health officials openly laughed.

“No, not to my knowledge,” the state’s Health Minister Martin Foley responded.

“And I’m sure in such a rare event, it would have been brought to my attention.”

Yet the app’s bill keeps climbing – and it’s no laughing matter.

During last month’s Senate hearing, Digital Transformation Agency CEO Randall Brugeaud revealed the COVIDSafe app was costing taxpayers more than $75,000 to run every month.

That’s on top of the $7.75 million already spent on developing the app, including 17 upgrades.

So far, DTA said it has identified 561 close contacts (the figure includes 544 contacts identified by manual contact tracers in NSW) not picked up by contact tracers across the whole of Australia.

COVIDSafe app costs us $8 million … so far

Financially, it’s not a great deal, experts say.

“It doesn’t seem, on the face of it, to be value for money,” Associate Professor Paul Haskell-Dowland, a cyber security expert at Edith Cowan University, told The New Daily.

“I’m still astounded at the pricing attached to this. To have an app costing that mountain of money for a system that has only been used to identify a small number of cases, the numbers just don’t add up,” he said.

Professor Katina Michael, a public interest technology advocate at the University of Wollongong, added there were hidden costs we were also paying for.

“We need greater visibility of the ongoing operational costs, and greater visibility of the indirect costs like marketing,” Professor Michael said.

More than $60 million has been spent advertising the COVIDSafe strategy, including social distancing and hand-washing guidelines.

The Morrison government has not said how much of that has been spent on advertising the app specifically.

But despite the costs, Professor Michael said the app hasn’t necessarily been a total waste of time and money.

“Financially, we might say it’s not working, but from a longevity point of view, we might say it’s a good investment,” she said.

“If things get worse, and the coronavirus mutates, we could be up against something much worse where we need to implement a system properly.

“This is a test bed. We may need to scrap what we’ve got and start again and make the right product from scratch.”

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