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Surge of cases in Australia as government admits tracing app has not found any new contacts

Giovanni Torre
Australia's Covid-19 app has had issues around functionality since its launch earlier this year - Shutterstock

The Australian government has admitted its Covid-19 contact tracing app has not identified a single contact not already known as the country recorded its highest number of daily new cases since April.

The surge was largely in the state of Victoria where 75 new cases were recorded in 24 hours, making up the vast majority of the 85 new infections recorded across the entire country.

The state's health minister Jenny Mikakos said the latest cases were “overwhelmingly concentrated” in ten suburbs of the state’s capital, Melbourne, which had been identified as community transmission hotspots.

The rise marked the 13th consecutive day of double-digit increases in the number of coronavirus cases in the state, whose tally since the pandemic began now stands at 2,099. 

Australia has fared better than many countries in the coronavirus pandemic, with around 7,800 cases and 104 deaths, but the recent surge has worried experts and led the authorities to suggest that strict social distancing regulations could be reintroduced. 

Victoria's chief health officer Brett Sutton said nothing was “off the table” in regards to possible measures to get the health crisis under control.

“I think it will get worse before it gets better,” he warned a media conference. 

The surge in cases has come as the Australian government has been forced to admit that its CovidSafe app, which has been downloaded by six million people, has not yet uncovered a single contact who had not already been found by its manual contact tracing teams. 

Professor Sutton in Victoria, for example, said teams in the state had downloaded the app's data thirty times, but not identified any one they hadn't already interviewed in their more traditional contact tracing efforts. 

"There haven’t been new contacts identified through the use of the app," Professor Sutton said.

There are also issues around functionality. Testing data provided to the Australian Senate showed its effectiveness, particularly on iPhones, is patchy.

The data showed it only worked 25 to 50 per cent of the time during locked iPhone-to-iPhone testing on May 26. One month prior to that, the testing results were worse, working 25 per cent of the time, or less, for contact between locked iPhones. Testing also found the app worked poorly when running in the background.

However, the Australian government has ruled out abandoning the AUD $2m  app, launched in April, in favour of the Apple-Google tracing model. 

Australia’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth said the tracing model supported by Apple and Google would not provide the details of potentially exposed people to tracing teams. 

Dr Coatsworth said: “There's no way we're shifting to a platform that will take out the contact tracers.”

He rejected criticism Australia's app had not been able to identify the close contacts of those infected with coronavirus that contact tracers hadn't already found through phone interviews.

"Our manual contact tracers, our disease detectives are really excellent at their job… The app will identify cases eventually that haven't been determined by the contact tracers… If the numbers were to increase, then the contact tracing app comes into its own as an important adjunct,” he said.