The long and drawn-out year of 2020 continues with the pandemic still playing out, COVID-19 still threatening lives and livelihoods, meanwhile here in Australia the Government, Health Departments, and major tech companies Apple and Google can’t get together to agree on how smartphone contact tracing should work.

We have the CovidSafe app – millions of people have it. Great.

It has its flaws, understand that, and to the credit of the Federal Government team building that app, they have issued many updates that continue to improve the app.

Apple Settings page for Exposure notifications

Today, Apple released publicly their latest Operating System update for iPhones – the iOS 13.7 update – this version includes a big change to the Google and Apple developed “Exposure Notification Framework” which allows for smartphones to track and record contacts with other smartphones without the need for a Government app like CovidSafe.

Two Differing Views on Contact Tracing

Apple and Google are coming at this from a distinctly simplistic approach for the consumer. No requirement for additional software, and a simple notification if there is any action required.

apple covid-19 contact tracing details within settings

The Australian Government doesn’t operate COVID-19 contact tracing in this way. Here, when someone is positive, they are asked for details of where they’ve been and who they’ve been with, and any data in their CovidSafe app is used to add to that list of people they’ve been with.

Contact tracers then get on the phone and call all those people. Talk them through the situation and ask them to get tested and to self-isolate.

Apple and Google’s framework (released publicly within the iOS 13.7 Update) allows for a pop-up notification to be send directly to the smartphone of a potential contact.

If notified – what do I do??

Which begs the question – if you get that popup, what do you do?

Well of course, most people will follow the instruction in the pop-up to contact health officials or install the app, and get tested.

But do State health officials know if that person has seen the pop-up?

How to turn on Apple Covid-19 Contact Tracing Exposure Notifications

How can we be sure they haven’t gotten the pop-up and then just gone to a party or a BBQ with mates?

Health officials can’t contact them – they do not have their phone number.

Data and Details for Contact Tracers

The Aussie CovidSafe app stores your name, an age range, your postcode, and your phone number. This allows State officials to get on with the process of contacting people.

No such data is stored or communicated within the Apple and Google Exposure Framework – for privacy reasons.

Sadly, that’s the important information that sees states like NSW and QLD being able to jump quickly to trace, track, contact and slow the spread.

Are we even using the app?

Problematically, from a public relations perspective, the App in Australia has not uncovered a vast number of cases. However, it’s clear that Victorian Health Officials are not engaging with the app as part of their process, perhaps if they were, the case load wouldn’t be as bad?

Or perhaps, from the other perspective, if we opened up our Contact Tracing framework to this anonymous notification process advocated by Google and Apple, more people would be more quickly notified without placing a strain on contact tracing resources.

Can we have CovidSafe AND the Apple Covid-19 Contact Tracing framework?

Without seeing the core details of what’s been released, it’s hard to be 100% sure. But – I believe so.

Apple’s iOS 13.7 Update seems to indicate clearly that for Health Departments or Governments that do not have an app – the process will work with a simple opt in, provide a logo and contact information for the pop up notification.

For those with an app, it is – an integration question.

Screen showing the Covid-19 Contact Tracing system will not work in Australia

What I think we need to see is Apple, Google, and the Australian Governments digital team around a table working out how we can keep CovidSafe running as-is, but integrate the notification part only into the app.

This would be win win. CovidSafe keeps working. Apple and Google gain more contacts, and critically, the CovidSafe app wouldn’t “require” iOS 13.7 – if that is a requirement, this thing will have less users than CovidSafe, we all know people ignore the upgrade warnings.

Apple Covid-19 Contact Tracing The core of the problem

In reality, the biggest moral and ethical disparity between the Apple position and the Government will be that a notification can be sent to someone without Health officials having any way to follow it up. That’s a gap in contact tracing, and one that could lead to outbreaks. Simple as that.

What’s the solution.

We need people smarter than me sitting around a table until they get a solution. Urgently.

CovidSafe has become a joke in the community, we need these systems working hand in hand to prove technology can help fight this pandemic.

This app, and Contact tracing via these kinds of powerful frameworks will be a powerful tool in us getting back to some sense of normality.