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Morrison Government deception over COVIDSafe app puts Australians in peril

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

In the midst of a global pandemic, the Australian Government is lying to its people about a protective tool that really offers no protection at all, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

PRIME MINISTER Scott Morrison continues to insist that the staged removal of COVID-19 restrictions and a return to a more ordinary life depends on the number of people who download the COVIDSafe app.

Using Bluetooth technology, the app is intended to record all contacts 15 minutes in length within a 1.5 metre distance from others who have the app activated on their smartphone. Should any one of those contacts test positive for the virus, all their contacts will, in theory, be notified and tested. The goal is to speed up contact tracing within communities. However, the inventors of Bluetooth warn there could be significant problems using their technology for corona virus tracing, including signals colliding with walls and being absorbed by your pants.

As The Intercept reported:

'Bluetooth’s reliability problems have never been more than an annoyance because the stakes have been about as low as can be imagined. Not so with contact tracing, where a false positive could mean a healthy person unduly treated as infected or exposed, with all the anxiety and restrictions that might bring, while a false negative means a person who might need live-saving viral screening could go about their routine as usual, instilled with a false sense of Bluetooth-enabled confidence.'

Regardless of widely available cautionary advice and increasing expressions of apprehension, the Prime Minister is determined to market the app as essential to the removal of restrictions, whether it works or not. 

“We need that tool so we can open up the economy," PM Morrison said. ”It’s over to you, Australia.” 

The Prime Minister described the app as offering the opportunity of an “early mark” for a populace eager to return to some semblance of normality, with the warning that the easing of restrictions is entirely dependent on the app’s take-up.  Whether or not the app is functional seems to be of little consequence to Morrison. He wants big download numbers, even though those numbers don’t correlate to usage, even though people may uninstall the app and even though there is no way of ensuring the installed app is used at all. Which, of course, it isn’t at the moment, because it doesn’t work. This point cannot be made too often, given the re-opening of the economy and the consequent increased opportunities for infection this entails. The Prime Minister is currently flogging us a dud, and we do not know at what risk to our health and wellbeing.

There are other objections to the app, including security and privacy concerns and technological weaknesses that call into question its efficacy. As yet, there is no legislation in place to address security and privacy. Despite being released two weeks ago, the app, apart from its technical foibles and apparent hostility to iPhones, is still not operational, because states and territories have yet to figure out how the system will work within their individual jurisdictions. Regardless of these considerable hurdles, Morrison continues to strongly urge the country to ease restrictions, while claiming that the app is a major weapon in the ongoing battle against the corona virus, that if used by enough people, will enable us to return to normality. Despite the current lamentable uselessness of the app, Morrison continues to claim its uptake, now estimated to be over 5 million downloads, is justification for reopening relaxing restrictions.

It is interesting to ponder how many of those who took to shopping centres in great numbers over the last few days did so believing their app would bring them a level of security not previously available.

The name of the app, COVIDSafe, implies that it will offer protections from the virus. Social media reports a tendency on the part of some to imbue the app with magical properties, such as the capacity to alert the user to the presence of an infected person within the 1.5 metre vicinity. There have even been stories of people who believe the app will protect them from infection, as its name suggests it will. Human gullibility cannot entirely be blamed for these misapprehensions. The Government’s message has been unclear as to the ways in which the COVID app is safe. Indeed, it can be argued that the app is currently alarmingly unsafe, creating a false sense of security and encouraging people to believe they will be notified if they encounter an infected person, when at the moment, they most certainly will not.  

The Government has done nothing to address these dangerous misconceptions. It’s tempting to conclude the Prime Minister doesn’t actually object to them, as harbouring such misconceptions may encourage more people to download the app.

That we are facing here is a deliberate attempt by the Federal Government to misinform Australians in order to attain that Government’s goal. Sadly, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about that tactic, however this is the first time it has so directly, immediately and dangerously affected our health and wellbeing.

In the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of a global struggle with a virus about which we know very little and for which we have neither cure nor vaccination, the Australian Government is lying to its people about a protective tool that in reality offers no protection at all, because it does not currently work.

This app should not have been released without the absolute certainty that it can perform the task required of it. The Morrison Government is guilty of peddling false information, false hope and false security at a time when what is most needed is honesty, truthful information and trust.

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and academic. You can follow her on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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