Australians rush to download COVID tracing app
April 29, 2020
SYDNEY – More than two million Australians have downloaded an app to trace contacts of COVID-19 patient’s hours after its release, the government said on Monday, as states set out plans to expand testing for the infection.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison (pictured) has said more testing and widespread use of the COVIDSafe phone app – which has angered some privacy campaigners – is among the main conditions for easing nationwide lockdowns.
According to Reuters, Australia has so far confirmed around 6,700 cases of the novel coronavirus and just 83 related deaths, way below figures reported in the United States and other hotspots – something the government has put down to its border closures and other measures.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the tracing app had been downloaded by more than 2 million people – about 8 percent of the population.
The government says it wants that proportion to reach 40%. “This effort will help protect ourselves, our families, our nurses and our doctors,” Hunt said in an emailed statement.
Based on Singapore’s TraceTogether software, COVIDSafe uses Bluetooth signals to log when people have been close to one another. It’s meant to help medics trace people potentially exposed to infections.
Civil liberties groups have raised fears that apps being considered and used by a number of governments could invade privacy. But Canberra says its software does not record people’s location and has safeguards built-in.
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said officials will expand testing to start tracing asymptomatic cases – people who have caught the infection without showing symptoms.
Daniel Andrews, Premier of Australia’s second most populous state, Victoria, said staff would open pop-up testing sites in shopping center car parks and test people in their homes and offices.
The states of Queensland and Western Australia have already said they will ease some restrictions this week, as both have had new cases in the low single digits in recent days.
The most populous states of Victoria and New South Wales, which have the country’s coronavirus hotspots, are maintaining strict social and business restrictions.
Morrison has pledged spending worth more than 10% of GDP, including a A$130 billion ($83.94 billion) subsidy to employers to keep staff they might otherwise have let go.
Still unemployment is expected to top 10%, and the head of Australia’s central bank last week said the country would suffer its biggest economic contraction since the 1930s in the first half of this year due to the containment measures.
Contact tracing apps like COVIDSafe could prove vital to ending lockdowns by making it easier to track the spread (and hopefully, decline) of the virus as public life resumes. Rather than shutting down most of society, officials could limit closures and stay-home orders to specific businesses and people. The challenge is getting enough adoption for the apps to be effective. Australia, for instance, wants at least 40 percent of the population to enlist. That’s a massive amount for any app, and privacy reassurances might be crucial for reaching that target.