During the great RAT shortage of, uh, earlier this year, Aussies begged governments to actually do something about supply issues and deliver free rapid antigen tests to everyone for the sake of, you know, public safety.
The previous federal government sort of relented and, while continuing to allow suppliers to make big dollars off the crisis, allowed a section of the population access to free tests. Pensioners, seniors, Medicare concession card holders and veterans were granted free RATs from pharmacies and other medical outlets. The rest of us either stopped testing or paid through the nose in order to protect each other.
That concession, however, was time-limited. Now, the deadline is looming for access to free tests for even the small percentage of us who were able to get them, as the new administration has declined to extend the programme.
Come August 1, those who had access to free tests under the federal scheme will have to start paying. State programmes that grant free RATs, like that of Victoria’s, will continue unaffected, however.
Federal Health Minister Mark Butler defended the decision on 3AW radio, arguing that supply is not an issue, as it was in December/January.
“I think that expiry, I think, is about the right time,’’ Butler said.
“The price has come down dramatically. They were running on average at sort of $24 – $25 per test if you could get them in January, now it is down to about $8 a test.”
The changes couldn’t come at a worse time, as Australia grapples under the flood of the third wave of COVID, set to send case numbers soaring over the coming weeks. The most vulnerable, many of whom will have been covered on the free access scheme, will now be left to fend for themselves when it comes to testing at home.
The Pharmacy Guild have criticised the government’s decision and are urging those who are eligible to load up on as many free RATs as they can before the end of the month. Acting National President of the Guild, Nick Panayiaris, has said:
“With cases surging we need every means available to help the most vulnerable in our community manage the impact of the virus to keep them as safe as possible.
“If the scheme is removed it will add pressure to government testing hubs and also potentially add to delays in accessing antivirals – delays that could see patients unable to get these medications within the required five days of the first symptoms appearing.
“The value of the scheme can be seen in the fact that community pharmacies have delivered more than 58 million RATS to 5.6 million patients.
“We would ask the government to reconsider this decision.”
Recent modelling has predicted that Australia still has a few weeks to go before we hit the peak of the latest wave, which is expected to top out in the final week of this month or the start of the next one. The BA.4 and BA.5 variants have been blamed for fuelling this latest rise, given they are much more transmissible than previous Omicron strains while public immunity is likely also waning. Health authorities have been warning people to wear masks in indoor spaces and keep up to date with their boosters.