Before the first vaccines arrived, the government held out the COVIDSafe app as the nation's great ticket to freedom.
Most people remember, but it's worth saying anyway, that Prime Minister Scott Morrison compared the app to sunscreen when persuading locked down Australians to download and use it in May 2020. As the nation braced for its first go at reopening after the initial lockdown, he told everyone to "slip, slop, slap the app", promising it would improve safety and help track COVID cases. More than 7 million people took his word for it and downloaded the app.
Time has not borne out the sunscreen analogy. The COVIDSafe app, costing $8 million to date, has suffered an inglorious fall from grace. Once the Prime Minister's great shield from COVID, government officials have recently described it in more humble terms, calling it a tool in a suite of many to protect against the coronavirus.
Having delivered a digital road-to-nowhere, the government's muted response to the review's findings is not good enough.
The app sustained another demotion when Health Minister Greg Hunt responded to a question about the tech in Parliament last week, saying "it has significant potential here" in Australia.
That question was prompted by a story from The Canberra Times public service journalist Sarah Basford Canales that revealed the findings of a report on the COVIDSafe app, a document she received through a freedom of information request.
The review, by consultants Abt Associates and delivered to the government in March this year, found the app was adding up to two hours to contact tracing workloads for little-to-no benefit. It also said the app had provided little assistance to the health response, and would not be useful in high-risk settings such as crowded indoor venues and major outdoor events. The app had uncovered less than 2 per cent of the total close contacts in NSW between March and November last year, and no new close contacts in Victorian and Queensland outbreaks.
The government has appeared reluctant to talk about the COVIDSafe app in recent months.
After the Prime Minister touted the app on the airwaves in the months after its April 2020 launch, his public enthusiasm appeared to cool. This year, as states entered more lockdowns and the Delta variant raged, it became easy to forget that a national COVIDSafe app existed.
Having delivered a digital road-to-nowhere, the government's muted response to the review's findings is not good enough. The government spent millions of dollars, and leant on public trust when it encouraged people to download the app. In doing so, it staked its paper-thin credibility for all things technology. The government is not in a position to cut its losses, nor hope the app fades from public memory until a better use for it emerges.
It should genuinely persevere to make the technology more useful both to the public, and to state and territory contact tracers. As the Abt Associates review observes, COVID-19 has a long way to go and the COVIDSafe app might still have a role to play.
In the pandemic, as in everything, hindsight is 20/20. The government, pressed for quick solutions during a fast-moving crisis, didn't hit the mark first time with the app. The public might forgive that.
But, it won't be so understanding if the government fails to learn from its mistakes.