How safe is COVIDSafe?

With fewer than 100 deaths attributed to COVID-19 to date, Australia’s response to the global crisis has been far more successful than many other developed countries, particularly those in Europe that have already experienced death rates that are 200 times that and more, or the US, which currently has recorded over 80,000 deaths and over 1.3 million cases. 

With the rate of infection curve seemingly flattened, at least during this first wave, on Friday 8 May, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a three-stage plan aimed at reopening the country.

As part of this announcement, Morrison reiterated the request that Australians download the COVIDSafe app, launched by the Federal Government on 26 April. The target then was for 40 percent of smartphone users, roughly six million people, to download the app. 

Dr Con Stavros, associate professor in RMIT’s Department of Economics, Finance and Marketing, says he initially believed that was an ambitious target, when compared to the results achieved in Singapore. “Twenty percent of Singaporeans downloaded their app and Singapore is a very compliant society. They’re sticklers for the rules and very collective in their mentality. So when I saw that number I thought, ‘we’re going to struggle!’”

He adds that Australia’s success in limiting contagion so far also hasn’t provided the impetus for a widespread embrace of the app. “If we were in New York, we’d be thinking this is a great way of knowing if we’d come into contact with someone. At the moment, the odds of you coming across someone are quite remote.”

But in the two weeks since COVIDSafe was launched at least 5.3 million Australian have downloaded it, with deputy chief medical office Paul Kelly describing the take-up as a “remarkable achievement” and telling The Sydney Morning Herald, “apparently this is the fastest that Australia has ever got to five million downloads of any app ever onto smartphones”.

What the app has in its favour, says Stavros, is the simple willingness of Australians to try and help. He also says that he believes the Government has done the best it can in the circumstances. “From a marketing perspective, anytime you’ve got confusion, it creates caution in the minds of consumers, so that’s a barrier to purchase or a barrier to download in this particular case.”

“If this were a product rolled out by an FMCG company that had a year to plan, they would have had the experts talking about it beforehand and a whole program behind it. Given that, I think the Government has done OK. It’s actually not a bad outcome, mainly through people just being willing to try and help and make a contribution. This is a way of doing that tangibly.”

However, these numbers came after widespread debate about the app, particularly regarding privacy concerns over what data would be collected and what the government would or could do with that data. Even politicians such as former leader of the Nationals and former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Queensland speaker Lew O’Brien announced publicly that they would not download COVIDSafe; Joyce declaring that he wanted the Government to know as little about him as possible and O’Brien describing it as “way too Big-Brother-ish for me”. 

They were joined by Mary-Louise McLaws, the country’s top coronavirus adviser at the World Health Organisation, who also voiced privacy concerns, saying she required clarity as to the identity of the custodian of the data and where the data would be stored.

Queried were the choice of Amazon, an overseas-based company, being paid to store the data, whether there would be a full release of the source code and the difficulty some users of older phones had in downloading the technology. 

The initial response was detailed in a survey by Ipsos that found while 54 percent of respondents supported the app, only 16 percent downloaded it. Meanwhile, 37 percent said they were opposed to it.

And by early May, despite the announcement of greater downloads of the app, such as Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt’s “5 million” tweet, there was still widespread pushback on social media platforms like Twitter, with distrust compounded by complaints about COVIDSafe’s functionality on the iOS platform and issues with battery drainage related to the necessity of having Bluetooth enabled for the app to work.

But among the airing of such concerns, the Morrison Government softened its messaging, announced that take-up of the app would not be mandatory (having refused to rule this out previously) and released a marketing campaign aimed at assuaging fears, emphasising the health and safety message associated with the app and encouraging people to download it in for the sake of their own well-being and that of anyone in their communities with whom they come into contact.

The ad campaign included a video that begins by praising the country for its response to the crisis so far, before listing three things that needed to happen before the easing of restrictions: greater community testing, the roll-out of more rapid health response teams and, notably, take-up of the COVIDSafe app, “keeping you, your family and your community safer”. 

“I suspect the Government doesn’t see it as a panacea,” says Stavros. “They said 40 percent but they probably overestimated, in the hope they could get half of that. I can’t blame the Government. There’s such a lot to communicate over a short period of time. I think they’ve actually done a decent job of communicating. They’re out all the time. I know there have been contradictory statements along the way and things seem to have been developed on the move, but what else could they do?”

He adds that the download campaign has been helped recently by the Government co-opting business leaders to the cause, pointing to messages like the one from the CEO of Woolworths, Brad Banducci, who on Friday 8 May wrote on the company’s website, “I have personally downloaded [the COVIDSafe app] and have encouraged our 190,000 Australian team members to do likewise. The app offers a simple and practical way for each of us to help prevent further outbreaks.”

“This influencer type of thing is important,” says Stavros, “and once they got to several million downloads there is the social proof they use in marketing, in the sense of ‘everyone else is doing it, I should be doing it too’.”

As it is such new territory, Stavros says he can’t predict where Australia will go from here. “It’s hard to know if it’s really a good outcome, though it seems like it is on the surface. It’s probably more than I would have guessed, but if they could show it in action, that would be a proof of concept. That would be hard to do and it could be a long way down the track.”

In the meantime, he says he’s one Australian who’s happy to try and help. “I downloaded the app a few minutes after it became live, which is partly me being a tech/marketing nerd, who was interested to see how it works and what it actually does. I’ve found it quite simple, though a bit of clarity around iPhone use and even a demonstration that it actually works would be great.”

Photo by Yura Fresh on Unsplash.

Madeleine Swain
BY Madeleine Swain ON 11 May 2020
Madeleine Swain is head of content at Niche Media.