The government says a national shortage of COVID-19 rapid antigen testing is due to the rise of the Omicron variant, as it is accused of being unprepared for an increase in cases.
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The finance minister says demand for the tests had far outstripped modelling. The opposition says the government had months in advance to plan for demand testing and failed.
The government has been accused of failing to plan for a predicted increase in demand for the rapid tests as the country reopened and the testing regime shifted to home testing kits.
When asked whether the government has failed to prepare adequately, Chancellor of the Exchequer Simon Birmingham said the Omicron variant had caused a surge in cases much larger than had been modeled.
“It’s clear that Omicron has once again changed the COVID landscape incredibly significantly,” said Mr Birmingham.
“It has…pressurized test systems that exceed Delta-type expectations.
“We are responding by acquiring faster antigen testing, refining the definitions around the need for testing and making sure it’s targeted at those who need it most, and making sure there’s support that provides financial assistance. needs in accessing rapid antigen testing.”
The country’s testing system has faced an explosion in COVID cases, even as governments have dropped testing requirements for travelers and less severe exposure to the virus.
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People have failed to get a timely COVID test and others have given up trying to get a PCR test altogether after being repeatedly turned away from overcrowded test sites.
With people moving to rapid testing, retailers have lost stock of kits, while a handful have sold the tests at wildly inflated prices.
In countries where tests are cheap and readily available, there have been anecdotes of Australians being asked by relatives at home to bring a handful of tests with them when they return.
The opposition, unions and community groups have called on the government to make rapid tests free or more affordable and accessible if they replace the PCR regime.
Tests are free in several countries, such as the UK, where kits can be ordered online for postal delivery.
But Morrison has repeatedly refused to make free tests generally available to the public.
Instead, the cabinet is considering discounting tests for concession cardholders, to be discussed at a national cabinet meeting tomorrow.
Rapid antigen tests, readily available in many countries, are scarce throughout Australia. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)
Opposition says government had months to plan tests
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese accused the government of failing to prepare for the surge in COVID cases associated with lifting borders and ending lockdowns.
“You cannot access a PCR test because test sites are closing and the queues are six or eight hours,” said Mr Albanese.
“You’re told to do a rapid antigen test, but you can’t find one, if you find one, it’s not affordable and they won’t do anything about pushing prices up.
“That’s the record of this administration.”
Mr Albanese said the government had known it would have to plan for rapid testing since September, when the Therapeutic Goods Administration recommended that rapid antigen testing be part of the testing regime from November.
He also criticized Morrison’s refusal to make tests free to the public.
Should rapid antigen testing be free?
Public health experts say that with the country having few COVID cases in Australia for most of the pandemic, the country now needs to learn from countries with high infection rates.
“This is a Prime Minister who has provided commuter parking spaces where there are no train stations, he has spent billions and billions of taxpayers’ money on garbage and rubbish,” said Mr Albanese.
“He can make things free for his friends, he can make things free when it suits him politically.”
Mr Morrison said yesterday that making tests free would “undermine” pharmacies and retailers that are currently replenishing their shelves and that the government would no longer be able to spend as freely as at the start of the pandemic.
However, the cabinet is preparing to introduce a shortcut subsidy or discount for concession card holders.
The states have ordered more than 84 million rapid tests for the coming weeks, 50 million of them by the NSW government.
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