More council staff unlawfully told to download COVIDSafe app

Staff at multiple councils have been told they must download the federal government's coronavirus tracing app on their work mobile.

As the Department of Health launched an investigation into the Strathfield Council in Sydney on Wednesday for making the COVIDSafe app compulsory for staff, employees at the Bass Coast Council in Victoria received an email telling them downloading the app was "expected" for those with a smartphone supplied by work.

The email, seen by The Daily Telegraph, instructed all staff with a mobile provided by the council to install the app, and encouraged staff to raise "questions or concerns" with their manager.

"To support the health and safety of our staff, it is expected that all Council issued mobile phones have the COVIDSafe App downloaded and operational and thank you to those who are already doing this," the email said.

Strathfield Council staff have been told they must install COVIDSafe on their work device. Picture: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
Strathfield Council staff have been told they must install COVIDSafe on their work device. Picture: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

 

"This app is designed to assist in keeping the community safe and provides an efficient means to contacting you in the event you are unwell or someone you have been in contact with is."

A source close to the council told The Daily Telegraph there had been no further instructions about the app, and its download was "purely expected" rather than being enforced at this time.

 

Any form of requirement would be a breach of a determination under the Biosecurity Council prohibiting people from using coercion to get others to download the COVIDSafe app.

The Bass Coast Council has been contacted for comment.

Strathfield council officials will be referred to police if they do not stop requiring all staff with a work smartphone to download the federal government's coronavirus tracing app.

Department of Health acting secretary Caroline Edwards told a senate inquiry into the COVID-19 response on Wednesday a legal team had "attempted to make contact" with Strathfield Mayor Antoine Doueihi about the matter that morning.

"(They) attempted to make contact with the Mayor of the Shire in order to indicate that on the face of the report if true it would appear to be in contravention and to seek assurances," she said.

 

An email from Strathfield Council asking its employees to download the COVIDSafe app. Picture: Supplied
An email from Strathfield Council asking its employees to download the COVIDSafe app. Picture: Supplied

Ms Edwards said the department's legal team was also drafting correspondence should they fail to get a "satisfactory resolution".

"If true and if we don't get an assurance quickly that they cease and desist from that behaviour … in the event we had any lingering concerns beyond today we would refer the matter to police," she said.

Ms Edwards also confirmed it was a "breach" of the Biosecurity Act for any employer to require their workers to install the COVIDSafe app.

The council is being investigated after employees were forced to install the app on their work smartphones.

The Daily Telegraph revealed the council's chief executive Henry Wong had issued a directive to all staff telling them to download the COVIDSafe app onto their supplied work device, even if they had objections to the technology.

A breach of the determination under the Biosecurity Act can result in a fine of up to $63,000 and five years in jail.

 

Health Minister Greg Hunt will investigate Strathfield Council over the incident. Picture: AAP Image/James Ross
Health Minister Greg Hunt will investigate Strathfield Council over the incident. Picture: AAP Image/James Ross

 

Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Wednesday it was "not acceptable" for an employer to force people to use the COVIDSafe app and confirmed the department was investigating the Strathfield Council.

"At a general level, it is not allowed and it is illegal to coerce anybody to download the app," he said.

"The Department of Health is investigating and I've had this confirmed to me by the secretary of the department today, the case that's been raised with regards to the Strathfield Council.

"So they will be investigating and they will make it absolutely clear that this, if it is accurate, is unacceptable, and further steps would be taken if it were not rectified immediately."

 

 

Mr Hunt said the department moved to investigate the council "immediately" after becoming aware of reports by The Daily Telegraph about the emails to staff requiring they download the COVIDSafe app.

"We saw those reports, we weren't aware of them previously, we've acted immediately, and they will be expected to respond immediately," he said.

In an email, seen by The Daily Telegraph, sent to staff on April 27, Mr Wong said, "if you have a council provided mobile device, you are required to download the app by the (close of business) today".

"The sooner we achieve downloads better than 40 per of the entire population, the sooner we can get back to normal," Mr Wong said in the email marked "high" importance.

Strathfield general manager Henry Wong.
Strathfield general manager Henry Wong.

Later that day Mr Wong then emailed the council's human resources team, instructing them to make sure staff had followed the instruction.

"Please check that everyone has downloaded the app on their council mobile device," he said.

The Daily Telegraph understands at least one employee raised concerns about being forced to use the app on their work device, but said they would still install it as they did not want to lose their job.

The directive appears at odds with Section 9 of a Biosecurity Act determination made by Mr Hunt governing the use of the contact tracing app which states a person "must not require that another person download COVIDSafe".

It is also a breach or the determination to take "adverse action" or refuse to continue a contract of employment with a person if they do not have the app.

Despite being informed the order was in contradiction to the Health Minister's determination, a spokeswoman for Mr Wong said he "stands by" his original email.

"He maintains that as CEO his call for work assets to have the app installed is a lawful direction and reasonable given the mandate issued by the National Cabinet and the PM," she said.

The council chief has defended his decision to require staff use the COVIDSafe App as being a “responsible” employer.
The council chief has defended his decision to require staff use the COVIDSafe App as being a “responsible” employer.

The spokeswoman said Mr Wong believed it was appropriate to require installation of the app as a "responsible employer of staff who provide essential services to the community".

"The App installed on Council's owned devices will provide the means for the rapid contact tracing and stopping the spread of COVID-19 from unknown sources involving key staff, and therefore would protect Council's entire workforce," she said.

"Besides, the sole purpose of the COVIDSafe App was to facilitate rapid contact tracing, where confidentiality is guaranteed by legislation, and is mandated by the National and State Governments, any concern about the App should be taken up with the National Cabinet."

The federal government’s COVIDSafe app cannot be made mandatory.
The federal government’s COVIDSafe app cannot be made mandatory.

The federal government will introduce legislation next week to reinforce the Biosecurity Act order protecting people's right to refuse to use the app.

Attorney-General Christian Porter said the Bill would "triple lock" protections around the app.

"Criminal offences under the Bill can be investigated by the Australian Federal Police," he said.

"Individuals can also have their complaints heard by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner or the relevant State or Territory privacy regulator if appropriate."

Originally published as More council staff unlawfully told to download COVIDSafe app

An iPhone displays the COVIDSafe app released by the Australian government last month. Picture: AAP
An iPhone displays the COVIDSafe app released by the Australian government last month. Picture: AAP

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