At the onset of the pandemic, before anyone received their first vaccine, the federal government’s COVID Alert app was touted as an important tool the country could use to help fight the spread of the virus.
“It is literally a tool in your pocket to fight this virus,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in November 2020.
“Download the COVID Alert app. It’s easy. It’s free. It will help you do your part to protect your friends and loved ones, ”he said in October 2020.
But the app never seemed to find its place in the anti-COVID-19 arsenal that Canadians were ready to embrace. Although the app is installed on more than 6.7 million of Canada’s 30 million smartphones, new data obtained by Global News shows that its use has declined significantly until 2021.
Global News has also learned that attempts by the federal government to integrate new functionality have been abandoned in large part because necessary provincial partners shrug their shoulders out of disinterest in the idea of employing resources to improve the app.
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The principle of the application was relatively simple. When people are close to each other, their phones would exchange and record anonymous digital codes so that if someone using the app fell ill with COVID-19, an alert could be sent to every phone that had recorded the proximity of this phone and the phone. owner could take appropriate health precautions.
To be able to send an alert, an infected user must obtain a special one-time code from a provincial health authority.
But British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon and Nunavut never signed, often citing technical difficulties.
Nonetheless, the federal government has spent a lot to promote its use. Health Canada said this month it has spent about $ 12.6 million on TV, radio and online ads since April. Add in about $ 3.5 million used to develop the app along with past marketing expenses and the overall cost of the app is north of $ 20 million.
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Along with ad spending, app usage appeared to increase.
In April 2021, 6,800 app users entered the one-time code to tell their app that they had been infected. This, in turn, prompted 35,000 notifications to be sent to other users that they had been in close contact with an infected person.
But in November, the last month for which Health Canada provided data to Global News, only 869 infected users entered their one-time passcode, which in turn generated 11,000 notifications.
Before those numbers declined, however, in early spring, Health Canada considered incorporating new features into the app, which it hoped would do two things: help stem the spread of the virus and improve performance. use of the application.
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“The discussion was, we have this app – how can we maximize its functionality? How can we use this app to truly support the overall public health response? Said Carole Piovesan, co-chair of the COVID-19 Exposure Notification Application Advisory Council, a group of health, technology and privacy experts gathered to provide external advice to Health Canada on the application. Piovesan is the partner and founder of INQ Law, a Toronto law firm specializing in cybersecurity, data protection and privacy issues.
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The new feature proposed in the spring was to integrate the application with a QR code scanner. The idea would be for restaurants, theaters, arenas or any other public place to display a QR code at the entrance. A user of the Alert app would scan this QR code upon entry.
Then, if a COVID-19 outbreak was ever associated with that location, someone there could be alerted anonymously and, again, take appropriate health precautions.
This, privacy advocates believed, would be a significant improvement over the ad hoc system many restaurants, for example, used in which they asked each customer for a name and phone number.
“Walk into a restaurant or store where they ask for your details for contact tracing purposes, then you find yourself giving out your name and phone number to anyone who stands near you,” Piovesan said. “Whereas with the QR code you can scan it and it would be a very quiet and privacy-preserving way to have some of your information – at least the fact that you entered it – documented somewhere. “
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Earlier this month, the federal government released the results of a public opinion research it commissioned from Ottawa consultancy firm Earnscliffe Strategy to see how the public might respond to the idea of digitization. QR code.
Earnscliffe, who was paid around $ 75,000 for the consultancy work, designed a series of polls in which he found that around 60% of the country supported the idea of adding QR code scans in the app. . Almost half – 48% – said such a feature would increase their use of the app and about the same – 49% – believed it would help contain the spread of the virus.
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Armed with the Earnscliffe study, which was produced in the middle of the summer, Health Canada approached the provinces to see if they were interested, but learned that the provinces were not thinking much about the idea and therefore, l idea was abandoned. A spokesperson for Health Canada said earlier this month that at this time, no additional functionality is being considered for the COVID Alert app. And Ottawa does not intend to renew negotiations to bring provinces and territories that have never signed up to use the app.
Piovesan, for his part, remains an advocate for the app – and its continued development.
“It is not the only tool and it has never been touted as the only tool or the main tool in the list of public health tools, but it is definitely something that can be used and can be used. very effective, ”she said. But we have to look at the life cycle and make sure people embrace it.
For now, the COVID Alert app persists. It has been weeks since Trudeau or any other federal official promoted or even mentioned its use. The television advertising campaign has ended. And the advisory board, which met 15 times between August 2020 and earlier this spring, has not met since May 26.
But, as of December 6, the app has been downloaded 6,784,430 times, each downloading a signal from someone, advocates hope they are ready to use the smartphone as a shield against the spread of COVID-19.
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.