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What you need to know about the COVIDsafe tracing app

The Federal Government launched the COVIDsafe application (app) for smartphones last week, which can be downloaded by the general public to track the potential spread of a coronavirus outbreak.

​This app has caused a lot of discussion with the general public, ranging from privacy concerns to whether the app actually works on your phone. [Source: Shutterstock]
​This app has caused a lot of discussion with the general public, ranging from privacy concerns to whether the app actually works on your phone. [Source: Shutterstock]

This app has caused a lot of discussion with the general public, ranging from privacy concerns to whether the app actually works on your phone.

Many people have pointed out that New Zealand was able to contain the spread of the virus without the use of a contact tracking app.

The app has only been launched for a week, but more people are raising issues around a few bugs in the app as well as the fact that it doesn't work well on iPhones and there are accessibility issues on android phones.

So, how do you know if downloading the app is the best option for you?

Should I download the COVIDsafe app?

At the moment, the app is voluntary, however, Prime Minister Scott Morrison hasn't ruled out making the app mandatory if not enough people download it. 

He says the app won't be as effective unless lots of people download the app.

The Government is urging people to download the app, however, you need to weight the benefits and risks when making the decision.

It's a good idea to research into the app yourself and talk to the people around you about what they are planning to do.

This app uses your smartphone's Bluetooth to "ping" off of other people's Bluetooth if you come into contact with someone else for longer than 15 minutes, for example in the waiting room of your doctor surgery or if you bump into an old friend at the supermarket.

So if someone you've been in close contact with is diagnosed with COVID-19, even if you don't know them, the Government will be able to look through their app data and information and find out who they came into close contact with, alerting those people to isolate and potentially stop spreading the virus further.

This app is meant to make it easier for health officials to track where COVID-19 may be spreading and make contact with people who were potentially exposed to the virus.

The drawback is that this only works if the person you come into contact with has downloaded the app also and you've been near each other for at least 15 minutes.

Nearly 3.5 million people have downloaded the app since it was launched earlier this week.

What do I need to download it?

The main thing you need for this app to work is a smartphone device, which includes Apple iPhones, Google phones, Samsung, and many more.

Any device that can download applications is considered a smart device, so if you carry a tablet or iPad around often, this can also download the device.

Many older people may not have up to date technology, like phones and tablets, which can make it more difficult for the older cohort to be involved in this nationwide push to get the app.

Additionally, if an older person isn't very handy with the smartphone they have, they may struggle to download the application. If you wish to download the application but don't know how, ask a close family member or friend to help you.

To download the app, go to the Apple Store app on your phone, if you have an Apple phone, or visit the Google store, if you have an Android phone, and search for the COVIDsafe app.

The application should be at the top of the search results and is a green icon saying COVIDsafe. Inside the icon is an outline of Australia with a white tick inside going through it.

Make sure to double-check that the app states it is created by the Australian Department of Health so you download the correct application.

Press on the install button and it should be available on your phone. Follow the prompts in the app once it is downloaded to set it up.

You will need to provide your name, mobile number, and postcode, plus select your age range.

After you fill out your details and press confirm, you will receive an SMS text message with a confirmation that you have completed the installation.

Lastly, you will receive a unique encrypted reference code.

This code will be passed to other devices with the COVIDsafe app. The app will recognise another user, and take note of the user's reference code, the date, time, distance and duration of the contact.

The app uses bluetooth to connect to other devices and this will need to be running in the background as you do things in public.

The information that is collected through the app is encrypted and stored on your phone. According to the Government that information will be deleted on a 21 day cycle. 

What if I test positive for COVID-19?

If you receive confirmation that you have tested positive for coronavirus, your State and Territory health departments will require information about who you have seen or been in contact with to prevent further spread of the virus.

To do this they will ask for access to the COVIDsafe app, however, you need to grant them permission. The information from the app will identify people you came into contact with. Those people will be called so they know they were exposed to the virus.

Health officials will not be letting people know who exposed them to the virus.

The Government says that after the pandemic ends in Australia, people who have downloaded the app will be prompted to delete it from their phone, which will also delete any collected information on the device.

Concerns and problems with the app

The main issues that have arisen since the announcement of the app was around privacy concerns.

Many people are worried about how the Government will use the data and where it will be stored.

In the past, the Federal Government has not had a good track record with protecting people's data, nor have they used personal data the way they said they would.

Other issues with the app include poor construction of the application, which doesn't work well on Apple phones, and is slow and won't load.

Currently, the app does not work on Apple phones unless the application is open at all times on your phone when you are out and about, which can massively drain your phone battery and cause inconvenience to your phone use.

If you want to download the app, you will also need reliable access to the internet or you will have to use up your phone plan data. This may be more difficult for an older person who may not have a big phone plan or access to the internet.

Lastly, many people are concerned with where the data is going to be held - by the Amazon Services server in Australia.

The concern with Amazon storing this data is around the possibility of the data being subpoenaed by the United States Government since Amazon is an American company.

What does the aged care sector think about the app?

Most aged care sector peak bodies and organisations support the use of the COVIDsafe app and say it will prevent the spread of the virus.

The Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN) believes contact tracing is a critical element in stopping the COVID-19 spreading further.

"OPAN believes it is in the best interest of all Australians for everyone to 'do their bit' and download the app if possible. While OPAN recognises that Australians will understandably have concerns and questions about privacy, we encourage everyone to ask those questions and read all the information available from the Australian Government around privacy and data storage, and to use that to make a decision on whether the app is right for them or not," says Craig Gear, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of OPAN.

"Contact tracing is a key element of containing this virus and ensuring we keep vulnerable people and our frontline workers as safe as possible. Downloading the app is a low impact exercise for most Australians, but could very well save lives by detecting close contacts and therefore quarantining those people in order to stop them from spreading the virus.

"This will be particularly important for aged care staff and carers as they have a significant amount of contact with older people who are more vulnerable to the virus. For anyone caring for older people including family members and friends, we need to be as vigilant with contact tracing as we are with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), as both play an important role in keeping everyone safe."

OPAN is encouraging older people to download the app and to ask their friends, family members and carers to do the same, but reiterates that everyone still needs to practice good hygiene and social distancing.

Aged care provider peak body, Leading Age Services Australia (LASA), is endorsing the app for download by older Australians and the aged care workforce.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of LASA, Sean Rooney, says, "The safety of our elders and the passionate and professional staff who look after them is paramount.

"COVIDSafe is an important part of this protection and LASA is actively encouraging the care workforce, older Australians, and their families and advocates, to download and activate the app as soon as possible.

"COVIDSafe has been carefully developed by health authorities as a key weapon in our arsenal to win the battle against COVID19.  

"The Chief Medical Officer has endorsed its importance in saving lives. The faster we can trace, treat and terminate the spread of COVID-19, the less the risk to vulnerable older people and the quicker Australia and the aged care industry can return to a secure future."

Consumer advocacy group Seniors Rights Service in New South Wales (NSW), has also supported the app, saying that the Federal and State Governments have used different measures to slow the rate of coronavirus infection, and the COVIDsafe app is another measure to slow the transmission of the virus.

"Seniors Rights Service applauds the various initiatives governments have taken, including ensuring that downloading the app is voluntary," says CEO Russell Westacott.

"Concerns have been raised in the community regarding personal privacy. Government has draft legislation to address these concerns, and this legislation is expected to be considered and potentially further strengthened when Parliament resumes in May."

"At Seniors Rights Service we continue to do our work, upholding the rights of older Australians. During this crisis, we are working closely with many residents of aged care homes, their family members, their carers, as well as aged care staff across New South Wales.

"We extend our sympathies to all those who have lost loved ones during this pandemic. We also thank the entire community for the great effort it has gone to, to protect people’s health."

Do you plan to download the COVIDsafe app? Let us know in the comments below.

For more information about the coronavirus, visit the Aged Care Guide's COVID-19 update page. 

Do you have any questions about the coronavirus that you want answered? Tell us in the comments below or email journalist@dps.com.au.

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