April 26, 2020 20:19:14


Political parties, unions and business groups are putting ideology aside in the face of the crisis. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

If you were in any doubt about the level of determination within Government to make its case for the new COVIDSafe app, consider who was missing from the official launch on Sunday.

As reporters gathered in a large committee room at Parliament House — all appropriately socially distanced — five officials entered and took their places behind the lectern.

The Health Minister Greg Hunt and the Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy (both familiar faces) stood alongside the Health Department’s Chief Information Officer Daniel Keys, Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer Alison McMillan, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation Secretary Annie Butler and AMA President Tony Bartone.

A full court press of medical experts to convince a sceptical public to trust their data in the hands of the Government, at least for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.

But nowhere to be seen was Stuart Robert, the Minister responsible for the Digital Transformation Agency that has been developing this app.

A close ally of the Prime Minister, Mr Robert is considered by his own colleagues to be both accident and scandal prone. Liberals say he doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence in the Australian public.


A full court press of medical experts, including Tony Bartone (left) and Brendan Murphy (right), helped launch the app. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

While his absence was conspicuous, no-one was surprised Mr Robert wasn’t nominated the chief salesman of COVIDSafe — in fact, some days ago the Prime Minister’s Office signalled this would be the case.

Enter Mr Hunt and Professor Murphy, whose advice to National Cabinet has so far prevented a coronavirus calamity from gripping Australia.

Their presence, along with that of the medical experts, was designed to hammer home the argument that this is a public health app and not a surveillance app (tracing contacts, not tracking locations).

It is merely the latest tool in the fight against COVID-19 that began back in January, but whose end date no-one can predict.

Depending on the level of take-up, the app, we’re told, will help ease the restrictions imposed on us since the crisis emerged by super-charging contact tracing of coronavirus cases.

While Australia has succeeded in flattening the curve, one of the biggest concerns is the more than 500 COVID-19 cases where no source can be traced.

That means there are potentially hundreds of Australians who have been infected with the virus but are asymptomatic or don’t know they have it.

These are the cases the new app is designed to identify.

A crisis can cure all

To be effective, we’re told at least 40 per cent of the population (or about 10 million people) will need to sign up and the Government’s promising a “triple lock” of privacy protections to convince Australians that it’s doing everything within its power to ensure their data is not misused.

Mr Hunt said these safeguards are “the strongest ever” put in place.

“Not even a court order can penetrate the law. Not even a court order during the investigation of an alleged crime would be allowed to be used,” he said.

“There has never been a set of protections like those which have been put in place for this app.”

To that end, he’s signed a “determination” under the Biosecurity Act (which trumps all other laws) that will be legislated when Parliament returns which will then be backed up by an agreement between the states and territories.

The Government says this will guarantee the app remains voluntary, that the data can only be stored in Australia and can only be accessed by state and territory health authorities. Any breaches could bring up to five years in jail.

Consent is vital. It will be illegal to compel a person to download the app or upload the data in the event that they test positive to COVID-19.

And anyone experiencing buyer’s remorse can delete the app and all of the associated data stored on their handset.

Despite the assurances, not everyone is convinced. Legal experts are calling for independent oversight of the app and want the source code to be publicly released. So far, it hasn’t.

There were also some teething issues with the rollout on Sunday.

At first, it appeared iPhone users would need to leave their device unlocked for the app to work, but the Government later clarified that was not the case.

But the Bluetooth signal will be weakened if iPhone users have several apps operating at the one time, or “low-battery mode” enabled, a problem we’re told Apple is working to fix.

Nevertheless, Professor Murphy is optimistic, telling reporters that just as Australians had willingly changed their lives to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, he believes they will also download the app.

“I think Australians will rise to the challenge because they have risen to the challenge of distancing … they’ve risen to the challenge of testing,” he said.

In case you were wondering, he will be downloading it.

This crisis is creating some unusual allegiances as political parties, unions and business groups put ideology aside and throw out the rule book to ensure Australia emerges on the other side with the fewest deaths possible and an economy still functioning.

Just as it would have been unimaginable to see the Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter and ACTU Secretary Sally McManus describing themselves as BFFs (or best friends forever) a few weeks ago, so too would an alliance between Mr Hunt and the nursing federation’s Annie Butler.

To see them standing side-by-side, advocating the very same policy for the very same cause, suggests crises can cure all.

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