Despite Ontario delay, more provinces considering signing on with federal COVID Alert app

Health Minister Patty Hajdu at a press conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa in June 2020.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu at a press conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa in June 2020. The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

Six weeks after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced COVID Alert, the national exposure-notification app still hasn’t officially launched. The federal government’s in-house digital development shop is working to make the app compatible with health systems around the country, The Logic has learned, and several provinces have held discussions about signing on. Ottawa is also preparing a public outreach effort in the hopes of convincing as many people as possible to use the app.

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Talking Point

Ottawa is in discussions with several provinces about participating in the national COVID Alert exposure-notification app, despite an almost month-long delay in the launch of an Ontario pilot run. The Canadian Digital Service, a federal agency, has been working with its Ontario counterpart and developers seconded from e-commerce giant Shopify to solve issues with the underlying Google and Apple technology and integrate local health systems, The Logic has learned.

Ontario was originally scheduled to launch a pilot of the app on July 2. Premier Doug Ford attributed missing that target to the federal government’s attempts to sign up other provinces; he later suggested it would go live last Friday, which it again did not.

While COVID Alert will be available for download anywhere in the country, it can only notify users that they may have been exposed to the virus if provincial and local health authorities participate, according to a federal source with knowledge of the project. The Logic agreed not to name the source because they are not authorized to speak publicly.

Once downloaded, the app uses Bluetooth to exchange anonymous, encrypted keys with nearby devices also running the app; those keys are then uploaded to a server. Users will be alerted if in the previous 14 days they’ve been in close proximity to someone found to have COVID-19. 

The notifications are triggered by a one-time code from the health authority that conducted the test, either through a direct link from its IT system to the federal key server or retrieved by a health-care professional from a federal portal and provided to the patients to enter into their app. The setup is designed to prevent mistake, joke or fraudulent alerts, and it’s the reason the app needs local health authorities’ involvement to be effective across the country.

The British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador health departments told The Logic they are in discussions with Ottawa about joining the COVID Alert system. Quebec health ministry officials have received a demonstration of the app, said spokesperson Marie-Louise Harvey.

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the Privy Council Office, its civil service counterpart, decided in early June that Canada should have a national app based on a joint exposure-notification API from Apple and Google, and code developed by a volunteer team at e-commerce firm Shopify, the source said. The PMO directed The Logic’s questions to Health Minister Patty Hajdu’s office. “To be the most helpful in our efforts to fight COVID-19, the app needs to be accessible and used by as many Canadians as possible,” said Thierry Bélair, a spokesperson for Hajdu.

The Canadian Digital Service (CDS) is spearheading the development of the current COVID Alert app, which is based on the Shopify code. It integrates some privacy and security features from an earlier version created by the Ontario Digital Service (ODS), the federal source told The Logic. Some ODS staff are still contributing to the project. Health Canada is coordinating the system’s review by the federal privacy commissioner’s office.   

The source also said a “handful” of Shopify developers remain “heavily involved” with the project. The tech firm’s employees are part of the Interchange Canada program—which allows secondments between the federal public service and industry—and are being paid by the government, said Alain Belle-Isle, a Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) spokesperson. Shopify did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Exposure-notification apps that use the Google and Apple API, announced in April, can run in the background of an iOS or Android device—they work even while the phone is locked and the screen is off. Users of Alberta’s ABTraceTogether, launched in May without access to the API, must keep the app open on the screen of iPhones with their devices unlocked to work.

The tech giants originally said they’d prefer that public health authorities designate one per country to maximize uptake. Alberta Jason Kenney’s office told The Logic this month the province had been working with Apple and Google to resolve outstanding issues with ABTrace Together but that cooperation ceased after Ottawa announced its national app.

New Brunswick was also developing its own exposure-notification system in concert with private-sector partners, but that “has been put on hold,” said Alysha Elliot, a health department spokesperson. Provincial officials have been working with Ottawa “to determine a path forward that will enable government to implement additional supports to keep our communities safe.” She did not specify whether that included supporting COVID Alert. 

Issues with the underlying Apple-Google exposure-notification framework emerged late in the development process, such as problems with the download of exposure keys, forcing CDS to create workarounds. It has also added accessibility features such as screen-reader support for the visually impaired. The work of integrating health-care systems like Ontario’s was still ongoing as of last week, the source said. Apple and Google must also approve COVID Alert for distribution through their app stores, a process that could take at least a day or two once it is submitted.

The federal government wanted to ensure the system launch was “as close to perfect as possible so that when people downloaded the app they would not be deterred by any kind of glitches or problems,” Hajdu told reporters on Friday, noting that users may abandon it if it doesn’t initially work.

It has not publicly announced a download goal. “The theoretical target is 60 per cent population uptake,” said the source, citing an April study by Oxford University epidemiologists; the researchers projected the system would still reduce COVID-19 cases and deaths at lower penetration levels. Ottawa is planning “public outreach designed to get as close to that as possible.” Health Canada and TBS did not directly answer The Logic’s questions about how the government will promote COVID Alert or how much it will spend to do so.

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Other national apps have seen substantial uptake, though they have not yet hit the three-fifths mark. Ireland’s COVID Tracker was downloaded 1.3 million times in the eight days following its July 6 launch, accounting for about a third of the country’s smartphone base. While the Apple-Google system protects user privacy better than other proposed systems according to some digital rights experts, they’ve expressed concern that the apps exclude residents who don’t possess compatible devices. 

On Thursday, CDS launched a limited trial of the app to see how it works for ordinary users. Asked when COVID Alert would go live for the general public, Health Canada and TBS did not provide a release date. “The app will be available from the app stores as soon as we are confident we have a robust product,” said Belle-Isle. 

Federal and Ontario government sources told The Logic that COVID Alert could be released this week.