The federal government has defended its COVIDSafe app as playing a "very important" role in the pandemic despite being handed a damning report warning it was adding up to two hours to contact tracing workloads for little-to-no benefit.
A secret report on the $8 million COVIDSafe app, handed to Health Minister Greg Hunt in March this year, warned contact tracers were finding the government's early technological solution to controlling outbreaks was not helping.
It comes as Mr Hunt this week defended the app's absence in assisting health authorities get Delta outbreaks in NSW, Victoria and Canberra under control.
Covering the six-month period between between March and November last year, the report found the app had provided little assistance to the health response.
It also revealed it would not be useful in high-risk settings such as crowded indoor venues and major outdoor events.
The consulting company tasked with the review, Abt Associates, told the government it was important the seven million Australians who had downloaded the app acknowledged "the performance barriers that are limiting the effectiveness and efficiency of COVIDSafe".
The app's barriers included technical flaws, some of which have since been resolved, a lack of location data and a "cumbersome" system that increased contact tracing team workloads for little reward.
Inefficient use of contact tracers' time is a high cost for the system to bear.Abt Associate report on COVIDSafe
The documents, released under a freedom of information request by The Canberra Times, also showed the app had uncovered less than 2 per cent of the total close contacts in NSW during the reporting period.
No new close contacts had been uncovered by the app in the Victorian and Queensland outbreaks.
Health Minister stands by COVIDSafe's 'very important' role
The focus has once again returned to the app Prime Minister Scott Morrison once described as the key to ending restrictions in the country.
Its limited role in major outbreaks occurring in NSW, Victoria and Canberra as the country deals with a third wave of the virus has brought into question whether it was taxpayer money well spent.
But the Health Minister again downplayed the criticism in parliament this week, adding it had been an important part of the government's response.
"What we know in relation to the app is that it played a very important part in identifying in New South Wales ... [cases]," Mr Hunt said on Thursday.
"As we know, any single case can lead to many others. So it has played an important role."
Labor's health spokesperson Mark Butler said the hidden independent report showed it had instead been a "colossal failure and a waste of taxpayers' money".
Employment Minister Stuart Robert, who was behind the app's creation in the early pandemic response, declined to respond to questions asking what the government had done to make the system less onerous for contact tracing staff since receiving the report.
The United Kingdom's national contact tracing app has integrated a feature allowing its users to be automatically notified if they've been in contact with a positive case.
The app's usage has resulted in a so-called "pingdemic" as thousands of users are told to isolate following the lifting of many restrictions in the UK.
But Mr Robert told ABC Radio earlier this week there were no plans to overhaul COVIDSafe to include the feature as it would require handing over the reins to major tech companies.
He insisted the app was still being used by state authorities and supported the overall contact tracing system.
"The app is there as one more capacity to assist state governments in contact tracing," he said.
"There's no silver bullet in this. There's lots of different measures that states are using, and the COVIDSafe app is just one of them."
Mr Butler said it's left the country without an effective national contact tracing app and millions of dollars down the drain.
"It has failed to identify any new contacts in most of the country," Mr Butler said.
"Unlike the UK, we have no national contact tracing app and this is leaving Australians dangerously exposed in this third wave.
"Scott Morrison has failed to protect Australians, no wonder he wanted to keep secret this waste of taxpayers money."
A tussle for documents critical of the app
The independent report was released to The Canberra Times this week after an internal review successfully overturned a number of redactions from a freedom of information request.
An earlier version of the 35-page report was heavily redacted, omitting any criticism of the app and stripped of 17 pages entirely.
It added the report was to be "laid before Parliament within 15 sitting days" after its completion.
Mr Hunt's office declined to provide an explanation of the delay on the record last month but the government later released a summary of the independent report days later.
The report, which combined two six-month periods of the app's operation, conceded the app had been "rarely" used due to low case numbers and the introduction of QR code apps.
But it ultimately concluded the app had been an "important addition", which is at odds with the independent report it was drawing conclusions from.
"The COVIDSafe app has strengthened Australia's contact tracing response to COVID-19, and it will continue to be an important addition to the suite of tools available to complement existing contact tracing processes going forward," the government's delayed report said.
"COVIDSafe has proven useful in identifying potential close contacts within these tracing processes and will continue to do so."
However, the consulting company's insights from contact tracers drew an alternative conclusion.
State contact tracers told the reviewers the app added a complicated and time-consuming layer to the time-sensitive tracing process.
Some had estimated it added an additional two hours to the process.
"They all agreed that these data access protocols resulted in a cumbersome and inefficient process for them to access the information, which involves eyeing data on screen and then manually entering any information into the contact tracing team's management system or a spreadsheet," Abt Associate's report said.
"Where [public health units] must be ready to rapidly surge their capacity and it is widely acknowledged that experienced contact tracers are at the core of a good system and cannot be easily outsourced or secured through short term training, inefficient use of contact tracers' time is a high cost for the system to bear."
The report concluded it encouraged the government improve the app by addressing its shortfalls given the virus would remain a challenge for some time.
"We believe it is crucial for all state and commonwealth stakeholders to explore options for enhancing COVIDSafe, particularly in regards to the seven million Australians that have downloaded the app, while recognising the real performance barriers that are limiting the effectiveness and efficiency of COVIDSafe," it said.
Mr Robert's office was contacted by The Canberra Times but declined to respond to questions or provide a statement.
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