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Making coronavirus contact-tracing app user-friendly caused delay, Hajdu says

Coronavirus: Health Minister Hajdu explains COVID-19 app launch delay
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said on Friday that the launching of the government’s COVID-19 app came later that initially announced because her team wanted to ensure the app was a user-friendly and free from technical issues. She added that her team has been working closely with the privacy commissioner to "best protect Canadians' privacy."

The federal health minister says the government’s new national coronavirus contract-tracing app didn’t roll out on schedule earlier this month because the government wanted to take the time to make the smartphone app user-friendly.

“We know from user science, user behaviour that when people download an app that doesn’t work, they often abandon the app,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said in a news conference on Friday.

“The success to this app is actually a large portion of Canadians using it, and so it was worth the time and extra energy to make sure that the app was tested and thoroughly debugged to make sure that it would be a pleasant user experience.”

Read more: National contact tracing app begins beta testing after delay

The voluntary app, when launched and downloaded, will warn users when they’ve been in close proximity to someone who has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Other countries, like Ireland and Germany, have already rolled out their own.

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Federal officials have said the data uploaded to Canada’s app — also referred to as an exposure notification app — and its national network will be anonymized.

The app was expected to pilot in Ontario on July 2, prior to launching nationally, but the rollout in that province was delayed with little explanation and no new date.

Asked what was behind the delay on Friday, Hajdu added the government has also been working “very closely” with the federal privacy commissioner on the project to address any of the watchdog’s concerns and to be “fully cognizant of how best to protect Canadians privacy.”

Coronavirus: Canada’s health minister says COVID-19 app launch ‘very close,’ provides no date
Coronavirus: Canada’s health minister says COVID-19 app launch ‘very close,’ provides no date

The Canadian Digital Service — an agency that puts federal services online that is leading the app’s development — announced earlier this week that the app is now in beta testing.

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In a series of tweets, the agency said it was starting “large-scale testing” of the app and invited people aged 18 and older to sign up to help them test it over a two- to four-day period.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Digital Service spokesperson told The Canadian Press nearly 5,000 testers had joined the program by Thursday evening.

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Experts have told Global News a national contact-tracing app could complement manual contact tracing efforts, but noted its effectiveness will depend on high uptake.

Others have cautioned the technology, because it’s based on proximity and time, won’t be able to detect certain factors that might help prevent the spread of the virus, like masks and barriers.

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Read more: Coronavirus: Feds mum on launch date for contact-tracing app after Ontario pilot delayed

There was still no word Friday on the new dates the contact-tracing app will be made available to Ontarians and then Canadians more broadly.

“We know that Ontario is ready to go as sort of the pilot province, and we hope to have that app out as soon as possible,” Hajdu told reporters.

“I know that we’re very close now.”

Coronavirus: New COVID-19 app for notifying user versus contact tracing, says Hajdu
Coronavirus: New COVID-19 app for notifying user versus contact tracing, says Hajdu

As Canada’s daily COVID-19 case count increases, with young adults accounting for a larger number of cases, Hajdu said she thinks the app will be “an additional tool that will be useful to Canadians to help them assess their risk and their exposure.”

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— With files from The Canadian Press