Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services

Transcript: Doorstop interview, Gold Coast

18 April 2020

The Hon Stuart Robert MP

Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services
Topics: 
Australian Government’s coronavirus contact tracing app
E&OE


MINISTER ROBERT:

Well good afternoon. The point of today is to give an update on the Government's tracing app ‘COVID trace’, the Prime Minister of course, has set out three broad conditions for the economy to come, strongly back again, that's greater more ubiquitous testing,  greater tracing and of course then clamping down on areas where the virus might spike.

And to ensure we can get greater tracing, COVID trace, or the use of an app is going to be one of those core aspects. The app itself ‘COVID trace’ simply digitises a manual process. Nothing more, nothing less. It is entirely voluntary. It'll be available in the next week or two for Australians to use.

And all it does is allows a manual process to be sped up digitally.

Right now, if you test positive to coronavirus, health officials will sit down with you and ask you to trace back where you were and who you've been with, and it's really hard to try and remember the ninety year old lady in the queue behind you at a shopping centre or a family that was close by you, for whatever purpose. COVID trace, as an app digitises that and allows the tracing aspect to be sped up. 

The intent being, and what we really want, is for as many Australians as possible well over 40 per cent to download the app, and the app works very simply, there's no geo location, there's no surveillance, there's no tracking. The app simply connects, ‘polls’ with another app, if those two phones­­ - so two people - are within one and a half meters for 15 minutes. It simply swaps, phone numbers and names.

That information is held encrypted and securely on the individual's mobile phone. You control your own data. And if you test positive to coronavirus that information is shot up to a secure national health storage and given straight to State governments, so they can contact individuals that may have come in contact with an infected person.

Right now a Privacy Impact Assessment is being conducted, the Privacy Commissioner is involved, and all of that will be made public. The source code will be made public.

So, all Australians can have absolute assurance from the privacy right the way to the security, right the way to the individual elements, the bits and bytes of the code, that the app is simply a health app for individuals, voluntarily used, to help us trace those who may have been close to someone who's been infected by the virus.

Right now the Australian Signals Directorate and the Australian Cyber Security Centre are involved in the security checking of the app. And we've also invited in the Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre also as a wider industry partner to be involved in looking at the code. So we want to be as transparent as we possibly can.

It is a big Team Australia moment. When this app is released in the next week or two, we really need every Australian to download it and to run it, so that if indeed, your family, you come in contact with someone with the virus, you can rest assured that health officials will rapidly contact you and seek to provide the best care possible to you.

QUESTIONER:

If someone has downloaded the app have they effectively given consent or is it a case they can download the app then they test positive then they have the opportunity to give consent for that data to be used?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The intent is to provide consent at the very start. So when the app is downloaded, there'll be a full privacy statement of course the wider Privacy Impact Assessment will be available as well. So consent will be given at the app download.

QUESTIONER:

Okay, so someone tests positive, then what happens?

MINISTER ROBERT:

So, let's say, I've got the app downloaded and I test positive to the virus. I literally click ‘I've tested positive’. The last 21 days of people I may have come in contact with, so for 15 minutes in one and a half meter proximity, goes up to a national health data store. And because the app knows in terms of what suburb I live from so what State I’m in - that information goes straight to the State health authorities and the State health authorities do the tracking. At no point does the Commonwealth get the data at all. And when the pandemic is done I delete the app and all data from my phone.

And then I the Minister will blow away the national data store, and therefore no data will be kept for individual citizens.

QUESTIONER:

How will the app know that you’re within one and half metres of someone?

MINISTER ROBERT:

The app is always polling during Bluetooth, so the native Bluetooth functionality on your mobile phone, and is looking for another COVID trace app. And as soon as it finds another app that is within one and a half meters, and that has been resident within that period for 15 minutes. That's when the polling or exchange takes place.

QUESTIONER:

So are people's phones gonna go flat in five minutes?

MINISTER ROBERT:

No, not at all because unbeknownst to you right now you've got 30 apps on your phone because you haven't closed them down, and they're all using Bluetooth and all polling and we're making sure in terms of design of the code that is not a heavy draw on Bluetooth on the phone.

QUESTIONER:

Kearney Consulting has done modelling suggesting the Government may struggle to reach the 40% take up based on other countries, why would Australia be different?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Because this is a big moment for Australia, and the Prime Minister is making it very clear that if we want to release and loosen the restrictions that are currently surrounding us, I mean look around this park used to be full of families in my home here on the Gold Coast and it's not now, because of the restrictions.

Well we want families to come back. We want the economy to kick-start and drive again. And to do that, we really need Australians to embrace a digital version of a manual tracing program.

Look it's new, we get that. It's something different.

But everyone's got a phone over 90 per cent of Australians. We all use a range of apps to cover everything from how fast we ride our bicycle to how far we're running to what we're doing in the gym.

This is simply one more application, but with a really important aspect. It's about giving health authorities the opportunity to call you, if you've been close to someone with a virus, or to call someone who's behind you, someone who didn't even know perhaps an elderly Australian.

QUESTIONER:

What do you say to Australians who are hesitant to sign up for privacy reasons?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well the privacy impact statement will be available the source code will be open for everyone, any university or tech company can go through the source code and provide any updates or guidance to the Government that they wish to. So there'll be absolutely an utterly transparent.

QUESTIONER:

So can you give a 100 per cent guarantee that people's information is safe, that our phone numbers won't be you know put into strangers might be uploaded on a stranger's phone can you give a 100 per cent guarantee?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well that's why we've got the Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre, we've got the Australian Cyber Security Centre. We've got the ASD going through that to provide all of those guarantees.

QUESTIONER:

Certainly in people's minds at least when we think of federal government IT initiatives we don't think of success, think of you know Centrelink a few weeks ago, you know the Census a few years ago, isn't, is this gonna be another one of those stuff ups?

MINISTER ROBERT:

This is one of many health applications, part of a suite of tech that we're putting the last three weeks.

Australia.gov.au has had 7 million visitors. We rushed in the information app, the coronavirus app, that’s had 2.77 million downloads. We've got the WhatsApp channels with millions of subscribers and 10 million messages being downloaded.

So the scale of the technology we're putting in place is unprecedented in terms of this health emergency and this will be one more application to build into that suite of apps.

QUESTIONER:

Will you and your staff and all Members of Parliament be forced to use it?

MINISTER ROBERT:

No one will be forced to use it is absolutely voluntary. There's no question I'll be the first one to download it, probably after the Prime Minister, and we'll be encouraging everyone to download it, I'll be encouraging corporate Australia, Not For Profit’s, everyone to actually download it.

It is a big moment for Australia. If we want to release these, and loosen these restrictions, we've got to be able to have an effective tracking tracing mechanism.

The current mechanism, manual, is very good, but a digital mechanism would advance that, in terms of days, days, quicker for your family, to find out if you've been in proximity to someone with a virus.

QUESTIONER:

Minister, what do you make of the Queensland Government's $200 million offer to Virgin what will the Federal Government be doing now?

MINISTER ROBERT:

It's quite clear there's a bunch of commercial negotiations going on with Virgin we don't want to prejudice those negotiations. So we’ll just wait and see how they go.

QUESTIONER:

Will the Federal Government be stepping forward to assist?

MINISTER ROBERT:

But once there are commercial negotiations in play, which they are, they should be allowed to run their course.

QUESTIONER:

Do you think it’s a good decision by the Queensland Government?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I think I'll let the Queensland Government speak for themselves.

QUESTIONER:

The UN is called for more money to be invested and Japan is out rallying other nations to fill the funding void left by Donald Trump will Australia have to pay more money to the WHO?

MINISTER ROBERT:

That is a question for the Health Minister.

QUESTIONER:

Nursing homes, say they're struggling with lack of funding for things like extra protective gear and extra staff for example will you be giving them more money to get through the pandemic?

MINISTER ROBERT:

There's been a comprehensive $320 billion package that the Government has rolling out over the last month to cover, not just nursing homes but staff in vulnerable areas, including Australians who have lost their jobs.

It's the most unprecedented economic package, frankly, in the history of the nation, and at present we're waiting see how that package rolls out. The JobKeeper payments will start rolling of course from the first week of May. So we’ll wait and see how this entire package rolls through the economy.

QUESTIONER:

With the app being voluntary option for people, what if people don't decide to not download it, would you consider enforcing people to download it?

MINISTER ROBERT:

I think Australians will embrace it. Because all it is, is a digital process, a digital way of doing a manual process.

There's nothing new here, and because the source code will be laid open for everyone to see with absolute transparency. So people will see there's no hidden agenda, there's no surveillance, there's no geo-tracking. There's none of that.

This is simply digitising a manual process, and I think Australians will want to get back to the park. I reckon they'll want to get back to the beach. I think Australians will want to get back to their jobs. And to do that, we have got to lean in to do effective tracing fast, and that's the beauty of the app

QUESTIONER:

Minister, there has been enormous pressure on Services Australia, what do you say to people who are still struggling with Centrelink system, they are spending hours on hold, getting cut-off, is enough being done to help them?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Just be patient with us, we are processing claims and working as hard as possible.

To give you an understanding, we normally process 10,000 claims a week for JobSeeker. This week we’ll process 210,000 claims, 21 times the normal rate.

In the last three weeks we've processed nine months’ worth of annualised claims. That gives you an idea of the volume of what the staff is working through.

We’ve rapidly bought on 5000 more staff. Today there's four and a half thousand staff working right now. There is tech teams working around the clock.

For those looking for a Customer Reference Number that went live yesterday. You can go to myGov right now and get a CRN, so your Customer Reference Number, to get access to a payment, right now, online, with a hundred point check.

So there's an enormous amount of tech going in, an enormous amount of resources going in and Services Australia is stepping up to the plate, in this processing case at 21 times greater than what it was doing a few weeks ago.

QUESTIONER:

People are still very frustrated though aren’t they?

MINISTER ROBERT:

This is an unprecedented a crisis, with unprecedented demand. We will continue to build our processing capability, but a 2,100 per cent processing increase is just the start. It's a good start.

There's always more to do, but we ask people to be patient.

Okay. Thanks very much.

[ENDS]

Page last updated: 18 April 2020