Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services

Transcript: Interview with Annelise Nielsen, Sky News

22 July 2020

The Hon Stuart Robert MP

Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme
Minister for Government Services
E&OE

ANNELISE NIELSEN:

Stuart Robert, thank you for your time. The COVIDSafe app has faced a lot of criticism, no evidence yet that it's helped in any contact tracing, surely that's a concern?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Ah, no. The app is working exactly as it intended to be. Tt's designed there to assist with manual tracing, designed to augment it. It's been used over 300 times now by health officials to ensure that manual tracing is picking up all the various contacts, so it's doing exactly what it's supposed to do. You're coming from a proposition that if the app doesn't find something that manual tracing doesn't, it's a failure. I would argue against that. They're designed to work together, and they're doing just that.

ANNELISE NIELSEN:

I'm coming from a place where when you look at the information provided by the Digital Transformation Agency, it says that it's quite ineffective in many instances in picking up those contacts if the phone is locked, as of May, it was less than 50 per cent if your phone was locked, when it was an iPhone talking to an iPhone the same for an iPhone talking to an Android. Surely, that's a concern that it's not working,

MINISTER ROBERT:

The DTA made it clear, they have had eight releases, the last one went in last night, so the app improves all the time, but it's using the native Bluetooth on the handset so the limitation will always be what the handset allows you to do. And certainly if the app is in the background on an iOS device, it's locked, connecting to another iOS device, it is not as effective as an Android device with the app in the foreground unlocked. That's to do with the handset, not to do with the app and of course we're working with Apple and Google to get the handset Bluetooth signal as strong as possible. But that doesn't mean it's not effective and it doesn't mean it's not working.

ANNELISE NIELSEN:

I mean, isn't that splitting hairs so to say the app is effective but the issues with the handset one can't exist without the other. And people are going about their day thinking that the app is working and it's making contacts when it's not?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well for the vast majority of cases, the app is working as intended to be. Australians should ensure that indeed the app is open and that if they have reset their phone or restarted or ran out of battery, they of course have to restart their app as well. Remember the app is just one part of the defence. It's not more important less important than everything else like social distancing, washing your hands, not doing large demonstrations on the streets, keeping within the square metre rule, all of these things build a defence and the app is just one small part of it. In military parlance, if you like, it's like saying to soldiers, you don't need a weapon because artillery and tank fire will keep you safe, which might be fine until a time unless the enemy gets awfully close. So all of these things are needed to keep the nation safe and they all play their part, working together.

ANNELISE NIELSEN:

Using that analogy isn't it more like saying look the bullet works but the gun doesn't?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Not at all. It's simply saying that the opportunity for the app is there to assist with a manual tracing effort. The app was never meant to replace manual tracing and of course up to state health officials how they use it. It was there simply to assist with, to bolster, to augment and it's doing that. It’s been used over 300 times to confirm what manual traces are saying. But the app does more than that, of course, if state health decides that it needs not just 15 minutes worth of contact, it might need lesser as Premier Andrews was perhaps alluding to, then the app will allow that to happen. This is a long fight. This is not going to be over next month. Until there's a vaccine, praise God hopefully it'll be in six months but it might be in six years we don't know, we're going to need everything in our arsenal to help, and the app is one part of that. It is improving every week. Release number eight is out now. 34 nations of the world are now using apps, the Sax institute says it's crucial. The University of Adelaide says ours is the best of the, of all 34 out there. The chief medical officers and the medical professionals are all saying it's an important part of our arsenal in defeating the virus. I think we should take all of those institutes and all of those medical professionals that they word.

ANNELISE NIELSEN:

Just when you say that it's being used to confirm manual tracing there's no evidence at this point that the apps actually been used to pick up any extra contacts that we haven't already had to do through manual tracing and in that time there's still plenty of cases where we don't know where people acquire coronavirus from so it's not working in that instance either?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well, if we're in Florida with 15,000 cases per day I bet the Governor of Florida desperately wished he had our app because there's no way manual tracing can pick up 15,000. Our app is designed to deal with the best of times and the worst of times. It's designed to augment and assess…

ANNELISE NIELSEN:

Putting aside what’s happening in Florida and we look at what's happening in Australia. There are no contacts that have been picked up by the app that haven't already had to done by manual tracing.

MINISTER ROBERT:

That's correct and that's a good thing, that we've got so few cases that manual tracing is being effective and the app is able to actually confirm what's happening. Could you imagine if… [inaudible]

ANNELISE NIELSEN:

[inaudible] …it hadn't been able to confirm the tracing?

MINISTER ROBERT:

That’s right, because 6.7 million Australians have downloaded the app, there is 18-plus million Australians with mobile phones, it just goes to show we need more and more Australians to download the app. The more clearly the better, and I encourage all Australians. This is the most secure bit of technology government has got in terms of protecting credentials, it works as intended as a 300 cases have shown and I’d encourage everyone, download the app and ensure that it's working, and that it is on.

ANNELISE NIELSEN:

As at today, what is the current level of picking up those Bluetooth handshake connections, if your phone is locked?

MINISTER ROBERT:

It varies from handset to handset, from operating system to operating system, and from Android to Google. So the effect is, from Android to Android is excellent, close to 100 per cent. The effectiveness from Android to iOS drops down. The effectiveness from an iOS iPhone 11 running the latest software will vary when it connects to an iPhone version seven. There's not one rate or one level, that it connects to, but right now it's effective and it's working well.

ANNELISE NIELSEN:

What's the level though iPhone to iPhone, you just said that Android to Android is 100 per cent, why don't you know that for iPhone to iPhone?

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well we work on moderate, high to very high. The DTA say that it's moderately effective, which is for about 50 per cent of the time, if you're using an iOS with the application in the background and the phone is locked, seeking to do a connection to an iPhone in exactly the same state, but again, it varies depending upon the handset and the level of software or version of software being used, and that's why we're working with Apple and Google. Apple and Google could fix this tomorrow, with the exposure notification framework, which was their way of doing things - with an app in the background with a locked phone, the iOS Bluetooth works perfectly. So Apple could fix this tomorrow, they could actually ensure that the Bluetooth strength works at the highest possible level tomorrow, for applications built in a sovereign framework. We continue to work with Apple constructively on this.

ANNELISE NIELSEN:

Okay, so you just said as it today that moderate level which the data (sic) transformation agency defines is 25 to 50 per cent, what kind of comfort is that for Australians who've been told they need to download this app to protect us against a deadly virus that if they have it running as advised, it will work about a quarter of the time.

MINISTER ROBERT:

Well that's not the case, because that's from an application, working in the background on an iOS device with the phone locked connecting to a device in exactly the same state. Of course it's connecting to many devices, many different operating systems in many different states. So the way you summarise is not correct. It's up to 50 per cent of the time, in that particular state speaking to a phone in that state. And of course the app is only one measure, it’s is one approach, it’s one way to augment manual tracing. And we should be encouraging Australians to do everything that health professionals recommend, wash your hands, social distance, avoid large demonstrations. Keep a square meterage, download the app. All of these things are all important, because they all work together. So cherry picking something, because it suits Labor's agenda is not part of what team Australia is about. We need to be backing in every single measure, because they work together.

ANNELISE NIELSEN:

Okay, we're not cherry picking something to suit Labor's agenda, this is data from the data (sic) transformation agency which is the one you oversee, that is sourced for the government that is a very common scenario that someone would be out and about with their phone locked and away. That's the scenario that's been put forward that they would say look this is going to work this is going to help trace people are you not concerned that this is creating a sense of complacency with people they think they're safe that the matches are being recorded, when if they have their phone locked, there's about a quarter of the chance of it is?

MINISTER ROBERT:

No, I am not concerned that people are being complacent because the app, there’s 6.7 million Australians have downloaded it, which means you don't know which other Australians who have downloaded the app. You have no idea if the person next to has downloaded it, which is why we want as many Australians as possible to download and use the app. It's just one more part of the arsenal in which we're going to defeat the virus. No one is walking around thinking, I've got my app therefore I can engage in large scale demonstrations, or I can be in crowded restaurants. Everyone knows they need to wash their hands, they need to keep social distancing, they need to avoid large demonstrations, they need to keep the square meterage rules and whatever advice health officials have given. No one is walking around, no one I’ve has said I said I'm fine because I've got my app. Everyone understands it's just part of the whole arsenal of effort we've got and it's important we continue to improve that and it’s important as many people as possible download it.

ANNELISE NIELSEN:

Government Services Minister, Stuart Robert, thank you for your time.

Page last updated: 23 July 2020