The Australian government launched its new voluntary coronavirus app, COVIDSafe, on Sunday. An important public health initiative to keep people safe from the further spread of coronavirus through early notification of possible exposure, its success would depend on whether 40 per cent of the population installed it.

The app became available at 6pm Sunday and can be downloaded for iPhones and Android. Users are asked to supply a name, which can be a pseudonym, and give their age range, a mobile number and post code. Those who download the app will be notified when they make contact with another user who tests positive for coronavirus.

Early figures on downloads were promising as the app was downloaded 500,000 times in its first two hours since becoming available at 6pm Sunday, with many Australians accepting the government’s campaign to use the app as a way in which to end strict lockdown measures sooner. Soon after the figure swelled to millions, raising hopes that it will reach the 54 per cent which prognostics stated would download the relevant tracing device.

There were a few teething problems, however, with some users getting a message that they had tested positive for COVID-19 (even though they had not been tested) and others had difficulties downloading.

“Australians are doing an extraordinary job to flatten the curve and contain the spread of the coronavirus, but we cannot be complacent, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said during the presentation of the app.

“The Chief Medical Officer’s advice is we need the COVIDSafe app as part of the plan to save lives and save livelihoods.  The more people who download this important public health app, the safer they and their family will be, the safer their community will be and the sooner we can safely lift restrictions and get back to business and do the things we love.”

The health initiative users technology to automate and improve what state and territory health officials already do manually. The app hopes to speed up the process of identifying people who have been in close contact with someone diagnosed with coronavirus, quickly stopping further spread of the virus in the community.

READ MORE: Tracing app to watch our every move

Join me in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19. Download COVIDSafe, an app from the Australian Government. #COVID19 #coronavirusaustralia #stayhomesavelives

Download at:

— Scott Morrison (@ScoMo30) April 26, 2020

Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt said that we are “calling on all Australians to download the COVIDSafe app to help protect you, your family and your community from further spread of COVID-19. This will be necessary if we are to start easing some of the difficult social distancing restrictions we have had to put in place.”

“The safeguards that have been put in place are the strongest ever,” Minister Hunt said.

“Not even a court order can penetrate the law [that prevents the release of the data]. Not even a court order during an investigation of an alleged crime would be allowed to be used [to access the data]. So, to the best of their knowledge, there has never been a set of protections like those which have been put in place under law for this app.”

The app has received strong support from states and territories which view it as a valuable tool to enhance the ability to respond rapidly to local outbreaks.

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert described the app as being developed to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“Once installed and running, the COVIDSafe app uses Bluetooth to look for other phones that also have the app installed,” Minister Robert said.

“To be effective, users should have the app running in the background when they are coming into contact with others. Your phone does not need to be unlocked for the app to work.”

“It then securely makes a ‘digital handshake’, which notes the date and time, distance and duration of the contact. All information collected by the app is securely encrypted and stored in the app on the user’s phone. No one, not even the user, can access it.”

“Unless and until a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, no contact information collected in the app is disclosed or able to be accessed. Then, once the person agrees and uploads the data, only the relevant state or territory public health officials will have access to information. The only information they are allowed to access is that of close contacts – when a person has come within approximately 1.5 metres of another app user for 15 minutes or more – in their jurisdiction,” he said.

READ MORE: Is the government’s coronavirus app a risk to privacy?

Australian Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said COVIDSafe is set to be a major tool in streamlining the process of identifying contacts after a person tests positive.

“Finding out quickly means you can quarantine yourself or be treated much faster, protecting your family and friends from possible infection, and slowing the spread of the virus,” Professor Murphy said.

“Without this technology, health officials have to rely on people being able to remember who they have been around, and being able to provide contact details for those people.”

He said COVIDSafe only keeps contact information for 21 days. This covers the maximum incubation period for the virus and the time it takes for someone to be tested for COVID-19.

“Once the coronavirus pandemic is over, and Australia no longer needs the app, the app and the information on it will be deleted permanently. No virus, no app,” Minister Hunt said.

Victoria’s Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said she would download the app without qualms and is encouraging Victorians to download the federal coronavirus tracing app but added that the state would not be compelling people to do so in order to wind back restrictions.

“We’re not making it a precondition that we get a certain number of Victorians participating using this app as a precursor before we would consider the easing of any restrictions in Victoria,” she said.

Australia’s coronavirus death toll has risen to 80. Almost 6700 cases have now been recorded nationwide, a relatively modest increase on the 6565 a week ago. At the peak of the crisis at the end of March, cases were rising by over 200 a day.

The App can be downloaded from the App stores.