Prime Minister Scott Morrison just can’t make everything free, he told Sunrise on Monday morning when asked if the Commonwealth would provide rapid antigen COVID-19 tests.
We’re at the point in this Pandemic now where we just can’t turn around and make that decision, he added.
That point of the pandemic would be the one where we are getting tens of thousands of daily reported positive cases from the more traditional PCR testing means, and people being turned away from testing clinics after lining up for hours.
The point where 28 drive-through or walk-in PCR testing have been closed in Sydney “until further notice”, as staff try to clear the backlog of swabs taken.
Where children aged five to 11 are still days away from having the opportunity to get vaccinated, but where appointments in some areas for this age group are not available until March.
And now we’re at the point where rapid antigen tests (RATs) that cost around $50 for a pack of five a few weeks back or $25 for a pack of two, are already being priced up by opportunistic retailers and bulk purchased by the likes of Harvey Norman.
The UK was offering free RATs, on a twice-weekly basis, back in April. Its COVID numbers (which are also at record numbers) include those who self-report the positive results they have recorded at home. Australia has no such self-reporting mechanisms in place, and with a more than one in five positive rate in NSW over the past couple of days, you can guess our own numbers would also be much higher if self-testing was taken into account. While daily case numbers may not be as useful as they once were, they can provide some kind of indication of what the impact might be on hospitals in the weeks to come.
But Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt says it’s “common sense” to limit the supply of free rapid tests. “If there were no constraints on that, then people would go down and take crates and boxes away,” he said.
On Sunrise, Scott Morrison said that “we have to live with this virus” and that these RATs are not medicine, they’re tests, and “there’s a difference between the two.”
He added the helpful reminder that tests are available for $15 and, as he “flagged weeks back”, they are “working on arrangements for concessional access to those who are pensioners and others.”
“We’ve invested hundreds of billions of dollars getting Australia through this crisis,” he said. “But we’re now in a stage of the pandemic where you can’t just make everything free because, when someone tells you they want to make something free, someone’s always going to pay for it and it’s going to be you.”
We haven’t heard much from the prime minister or the health minister these past few weeks, despite the skyrocketing COVID numbers. Morrison’s record on communication during a crisis has not been good, especially over the Christmas break. But with an election coming up one may have thought he’d get a little harder this holiday period.
It was not to be.
The arrogance of Morrison using the word ‘free’ in such a way, when referring to taxpayer dollars. The casual suggestion that Australians have been given enough “free stuff” during this pandemic. The ignorance of insinuating that $15 was a reasonable price, when such costs are out of the question for a significant portion of the population, and especially impossible if you’re hoping to test a family.
And then there was his own goal of admitting and reminding the media that he’s been working on concessional access ‘for weeks’, yet didn’t have any answers on what that would look like. Even with a few hundred cases of Delta circulating rather than the more highly contagious Omicron strain.
Planning for what’s ahead? We’re still not yet at that point in the pandemic.