21 July 2020

TOM CONNELL, HOST: Chris Bowen, thanks for your time. It was our error of course before, not blaming you, The COVIDSafe app, the download rate 40.4 per cent. It's been revealed, courtesy of a question on notice from this COVID committee, that is just over the amount the Government was hoping, 40 per cent of total smartphone users. So that's not a bad result is it?

CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Well, it underlines the point that the fact that the app isn't working isn't the fault of the Australian people, the Australian people were asked by the Government to download the app. In large measure we have and yet it hasn't found a single case that hadn't already been found through manual tracing. So we just have to call it as it is, with no sort of sense of triumphalism because we supported the concept of the app. But the way the Government has designed it is not working. We're in the middle of a significant outbreak. And it hasn't played a role in dealing with that outbreak. And that is the responsibility of the Government. Whether it's the lack of interoperability, whether it's the system failures, whether it's people who haven't been encouraged to download the more recent versions of it by the Government. It isn't working. It is a failure and it has to be called out as such.

CONNELL: Part of the issue the Government says is the issue around Bluetooth, how that can operate according to the rules set by both Google and Apple, would you call on those companies as well to fast track any negotiations with the Government, that the Government should be trusted with the way this app is set up - with any data privacy concerns that those companies should not have them in this particular case as a one off?

BOWEN: Well, in fairness, Tom, the Government knew that at the outset, the Government knew that there were relationship issues with the interoperability of it and the how the Bluetooth operates. That's why other governments around the world have taken the decision to do the Google/Apple App. Now, I'm not saying that's necessarily the only solution in Australia. Of course, there are issues to be worked through there. And of course, companies are encouraged to work with the Government. But the Government just can't say 'we just discovered all these problems' they knew that at the outset, other governments took different approaches. And this Government said that they had to go down this road. Now we were told all sorts of things. It was the sunscreen, it was the key to getting out from under the doona, that it was the magic solution to dealing with COVID-19. It hasn't worked. It has to be called out as such, it has failed. We know now they've spent $70 million on advertising - this is not the fault of the Australian people. This is the fault of the Government of the day.

CONNELL: What about the actual configuration of it? So the app has worked according to a lot of different authorities, but it's just reaffirmed people in terms of their contact with someone they already knew, at the moment, it only triggers if you're within 1.5 meters of someone for 15 minutes. Now in the current climate, that's pretty rare unless you know the people. Could a bit of a switch to that configuration be the key and would Labor support that say if you're within 1.5 meters of someone for a minute. It might clock up a lot more times. But is that something more relevant now?

BOWEN: Those things should certainly be considered. But I don't think we can just say that that's the reason why it hasn't worked. And it's, and it's simply not good enough to say it's confirmed contacts that have already been determined through manual tracing. I mean, the manual tracers are under enormous pressure, particularly in Victoria people working night and day on manual contact tracing, and they aren't being assisted by the app. So all those things, whether it could be tweaked earlier, sure, we'd be constructive and supportive of all sensible measures there. But fundamentally, let's not say that something like that is going to solve the problem here when there are clearly design issues. Clearly, failures are designed by the Government for whatever reason, they've undertaken these decisions. They have to explain why it's not working and it would just be best if they fessed up about it. I mean, the Australian people, including the Opposition have been prepared to give the Government a fair degree of slack here. We've been prepared, prepared to say yes - things are moving fast. This is a fast moving environment mistakes are going to be made. But if the Government was just honest about it, and admitted it was working, instead of claiming it's been involved in 200 cases, when clearly, that's just not true. Scott Morrison should just for once be honest about something which has gone wrong instead of trying to spin his way out of it is normal marketing sort of style.

CONNELL: We spoke last week about the suppression strategy which you approved of the PM has cited New South Wales rather than Victoria, as an example where this is working. So if the New South Wales clusters get out of control with all the focus, all the resources we have on them at the moment, do we need to ask questions about either the strategy itself or how it's being implemented?

BOWEN: Oh, look, I think, as I've said before, the New South Wales Government is taking the correct approach. We've got 86 active cases in New South Wales that's quite different to Victoria. So of course, you're going to have a different response in New South Wales than you do in Victoria for a very different set of circumstances and I'm living it and breathing it here in Western Sydney at the moment, Tom, I mean, Stocklands Wetherill Park is a key focus from my community, you know, it's a hub for my community. The Thai Rock restaurant is very popular. I've dined there myself with my family, not in the key period, I hasten to add, but previously, it's a very popular place. So of course, you're going to have the New South Wales response being different I think we get caught up in the, you know, elimination word versus the suppression word. As I've said before, an elimination strategy would involve much harsher lockdowns than we have previously experienced including what Victoria is doing at the moment would be an even harsher result, I think an aggressive suppression strategy, which is to say we are going to go hard and go early, which is what I've said from the beginning of this crisis is always the best response. But even if there was the explicit elimination strategies, all the evidence points to the fact that we would still be in this situation today, given as the Victorian Government has acknowledged there have been some problems with quarantine. So that's not part of an elimination versus suppression strategy. That's a separate matter.

CONNELL: I'm asking about New South Wales, I understand the Victorian matter. But don't we still have this test case in New South Wales? And if you say you've got no issue with the Government's response here and the way it's happening, do we need to rethink how we're doing suppression, if that's still the agreed approach an aggressive suppression if these outbreaks get out of control? And if we're doing the things we should and it's not getting the desired outcome don't you have to rethink what you're doing?

BOWEN: Well, we clearly need to have all the measures in place, social distancing, of careful checks and balances where you're dealing with a situation where New South Wales is at a crossroads. I mean, New South Wales is at a crossroads. We might get through this, we might get the current outbreak under control, or it might get worse. We do not know yet. I mean, Victoria had 88 cases in mid-June, for example, which is about where New South Wales is today. So there is considerable risk in the system. But nor do you want to sort of rush to a state-wide lockdown, while we are dealing with at the moment, geographically specific, fairly geographically specific outbreaks. So I think the Government of New South Wales has been reasonable when they say, well, we'll do more if necessary, but we won't rush to it. We'll see if the current strategy is working. Testing is very important. Of course, we all want to see more testing. I've seen the people in Batemans Bay are being turned away. Of course, we would encourage that situation to be fixed as a matter of some urgency, but people are responding, you know, to a very fast moving situation. We acknowledge that and we provide constructive support to all measures that can be put in place.

CONNELL: Just finally, the possibility that there will be another Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney. What would you say to organisers about whether that's the right time?

BOWEN: Well, the first thing to say of course, is this is a vital cause. We all are passionate about this cause, I'm passionate about a Voice to Parliament, for example, for our Indigenous people. But the health orders are very clear - no more than 20 people. I agree that this is not the right time for mass gatherings. This would be a very difficult thing to do with the social distancing in place. So it's absolutely vital that everybody complies with the health orders. There are other ways to protest, other ways to make our views known. There's all sorts of options now, for online protesting and online campaigns. Now is not the time for a mass protest, which is not approved by the health regulation. So I give my support to the measures put in place by the New South Wales Government to provide for you know, regulation of that. This is a noble cause, a very important cause. But this is not the time for a mass protest.

CONNELL: Chris Bowen, thanks for your time today.

BOWEN: Thank you, Tom.