As Australia inches closer to 100,000 COVID-19 cases a day, more testing sites were closed on Wednesday and new rules on free access to rapid antigen tests (RATs) were issued following a national cabinet meeting.
Up to ten RATs will be provided free over three months to pensioners and those holding concession and health cards, the Prime Minister announced Wednesday, while anyone who does test positive will no longer be required to undertake a PCR test to confirm their diagnosis. Instead, they are asked to report the result to their doctor. It’s unclear yet how positive results will be tracked by states and territories.
A number of other requirements for PCR tests have been removed, including the pre-arrival tests for those requiring hospital treatment, the weekly test for truck drivers, and the second test for those arriving from overseas (other than in Queensland). All states (other than Western Australia, which did not participate in the cabinet meeting) have also agreed to remove interstate testing requirements.
Scott Morrison reiterated his stance that RATs will not be offered free to everyone.
“Universal free access was not considered the right policy response by all of the state and territories in attendance today, and the Commonwealth,” he told reporters following the Cabinet meeting.
He said anyone who is symptomatic or a close contact can still go to testing centres, “all those tests are free,” he said.
This is despite medical experts describing RATs as an “essential” tool for dealing with COVID-19, and urging them to be provided free.
Dr Omar Khorshid, President of the Australian Medical Association, said in a statement that current soaring case numbers are likely to represent just a fraction of actual infection rates. “There’s no time for piecemeal measures, like targeted subsidies which might be difficult to implement,” he said. “We need to harness the goodwill of the community to use RAT kits and free access for everybody.”
The Public Health Association of Australia’s Adjunct chief executive Prof Terry Slevin said that the work of public health and healthcare workers must not be diminished by allowing market forces to determine who can afford to get and use RATs during this health emergency. “Equity matters, as it does for every aspect of public health. The people most at risk from the pandemic are often least able to afford RATs, if they can find any.”
Morrison described the ten tests to be provided through pharmacies to concession card holders (held by around 6.6 million people) as “peace of mind” tests, with details to be finalised over the next two weeks. He also conceded that supply of these tests will continue to be constrained.
Morrison added that a national back-to-school plan will also be finalsed over the next fortnight and that, “we are all very shared in our view that schools go back and stay back, on day one of term one.”
He told reporters that the pandemic “throws up all the challenges and complete changes and omicron was a very big game changer.”
“We have no choice but to ride the wave. What is the alternative? What we must do is press on.”
Morrison has cancelled plans to take the next two weeks off. National Cabinet will meet again next week.