Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed that, contrary to the stance he took just a few days ago, the federal government will soon be providing free rapid antigen tests.
The news came as the PM faced the press in a conference to update the nation on the results of the latest emergency national cabinet meeting.
Morrison, confusingly, stated that “tests for close contacts and those who are symptomatic, they are free” and that “they have always been free” which is news to, well, everyone who has shelled out $20 a pop for the highly sought after medical equipment.
Clarifying the announcement, Morrison said that the Commonwealth will be providing 10 million RATs to states and territories to be used as both self-testing and point-of-care testing.
Individuals who are deemed close contacts or who have symptoms will be able to go to a testing clinic and receive free RATs for at home testing.
They will also will be provided for free for those with concession cards. Concession cards include those who hold a Commonwealth seniors health card, a healthcare card, a low income card, a pension concession card, a DVA Gold card and a DVA White card. This is thought to cover around 6.6 million Australians.
However, free tests for everyone were ruled out at the cabinet meeting.
“Universal free access was not considered the right policy response by all of the states and territories in attendance today, and the Commonwealth,” Morrison said.
It is understood that the RATs will be distributed free through pharmacies to concession card holders after a push from Queensland at the national meeting. ID checks will be used and individuals will only be allowed to collect 10 tests over three months.
The news comes as people are still struggling to access the tests, which provide COVID results in a matter of minutes, with empty shelves and sold out signs seen across the country.
Morrison also announced that a PCR test would no longer be required to confirm a positive RAT and that the changes will alleviate pressure on the overwhelmed testing system.
“We also agreed today to remove the requirement for a PCR test to confirm a positive rapid antigen test result,” he said.
“So if you have gone along, if you are a close contact and had a rapid antigen test and it is positive, you do not need to get a PCR test to confirm that. That will take pressure off PCR testing lines”.
RATs have increased dramatically in price over the past month as states changed their COVID policies, allowing those who suspect they might have the virus to use a RAT instead of a PCR test to meet certain testing requirements. In some cases, a single test will sell for up to $20 in a pharmacy while there have been reports of people trying to shift them for $100 each online.
In a very Coalition move, Morrison has announced that new measures will be brought in to stop price gouging, with fines of up to $66,000 or five years in prison for those who sell a RAT at more than 120% mark up. Export restrictions and anti-hoarding measures will also come into play, with people
Massive queues and testing clinic closures have compounded the problem, with people skipping the queues to take a RAT at home instead of waiting hours to get a PCR test.
Despite this, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has resolutely refused to make the tests free for the public, saying on 3 January that doing so would “undercut” health retailers.
“This isn’t a medicine, it’s a test, and so, there’s a difference between those two things. They are available at $15,” he said.
“We’ve invested hundreds of billions of dollars getting Australia through this crisis. 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”.
It’s a somewhat bizarre argument as the people currently paying for them are still the public while the government can access RATs at bulk and discounted rates. Either way, we’ll be paying, just more than it would otherwise cost us if the government subsidised the cost.
Chemist Warehouse has also said that they would have no issue with the government stepping in and making the tests free as getting life back to normal is good for business too.
RATs are currently free for frontline healthcare workers, aged care staff, and remote indigenous communities and both NSW and VIC have said that they will begin to distribute free tests for their citizens in the coming months and weeks.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has said that “for those people that can even find one, we have price gouging going on and it’s simply unaffordable for many people.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has said that the ACCC is monitoring the price of RATs and will move to ensure there is no price gouging if they detect it.
While the results of the national cabinet meeting will be announced later today, disability groups have voiced their concern that the move to make RATs cheaper for some vulnerable people won’t go nearly far enough.
Frances Quan Tarrant, a senior advocate at People With Disability Australia, has said “If we can do bowel screening through the mail, why can’t we do rapid antigen testing?”
“It has to go wider because there are an incredible number of people with disabilities [and chronic conditions] who do not have access to concession cards”.
Covid-19 Taskforce Commander Lieutenant General John Frewen also made the announcement that vaccines for 5-11 year olds will start to roll out on 10 January.
“The very particular supply for that cohort is in country, has been tested and is being distributed as we speak and they will be adequate paediatric doses to meet the first dose requirement for all kids, prior to the commencement of school,” he said.