Thu. May 26th, 2022

Federal, state, and territory leaders will today consider whether fast antigen COVID-19 testing should be subsidized for vulnerable people, as frustration rises over costs and difficulty finding kits.

Rapid testing has been sparse since the Omicron variant caused an explosion of cases across the country, and the National Cabinet agreed to make them part of the official testing regime.

As people have skipped overwhelming PCR test queues in their search for the quick tests, many have come across empty shelves or in some cases massively marked prices for the kits.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly resisted pressure to make the tests free for anyone who wants one, similar to some overseas schemes, saying his government can no longer use as freely as it did at the beginning of the pandemic.

Instead, the federal government has proposed that it could give discounts on rapid antigen tests for cardholders, a proposal it will take to the national cabinet today.

But some health and disability workers say that even if it does, it will not be enough to ensure that everyone who needs a test can get one.

They also warn that a flawed distribution plan for rapid testing will leave some of Australia’s most vulnerable untested.

The National Cabinet will also consider whether to change who counts in the figures for COVID-19 admissions, as people with COVID admissions for other health reasons are included in the count.

Disability groups fear exclusion under hasty plans

Unlike geriatric care facilities, the government does not fund free rapid tests to screen visitors for disability housing.

Frances Quan Tarrant, a senior lawyer at People With Disability Australia, said that unless distribution plans change, people living and working in disability accommodation services will end up being banned.

She warned that a plan in Queensland, particularly to distribute rapid tests at PCR test sites, would not suit disabled people in need of screening, or people in disability housing.

“How do you get a group of clinically vulnerable people out to a clinic that is already overburdened? Just so they can be screened, not to get a diagnosis, just so they can be screened,” Quan Farrant asked.

“It does not work, it makes no sense.

The organization has called for rapid tests to be available via mail orders, similar to a scheme in the UK that gives people with disabilities and their relatives access to free fast antigen tests twice a week by post.

Line for COVID-19 test at Mater in southern Brisbane on January 3, 2022
Disability advocates say test sites are inaccessible to some vulnerable people.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

But Ms Quan Farrant said there were also more immediate problems with quick testing that needed to be addressed.

She said mass purchases of the tests had become prohibitive for many service providers since the government removed rapid tests for essential workers from the Medicare Benefits Schedule in the new year, and the tests need to be reintroduced as a priority.

Ms Quan Farrant warned that even if the government finances a rebate for cardholders, it will not go far enough.

“It must be broader because there are an incredible number of people with disabilities [and chronic conditions] who do not have access to concession cards, “she said.

The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), a top body representing services to many of the country’s most disadvantaged people, has supported a call for tests to be free of charge for vulnerable Australians.

ACOSS CEO Peter McNamara said the changed approach to testing was poorly timed.

“It’s a massive political shift from offering free PCR testing to everyone, to expecting people and organizations to pay for their own rapid antigen testing if they can get hold of them,” McNamara said.

“This is the worst time of the year for a sudden change in government policy like this – made without any consultation or warning or any plan to deal with the consequences.”

Sir. Morrison has noted that rapid tests are free for individuals identified as close contacts by state health authorities, which are used on the sixth day after an exposure.

More than 100 million rapid tests are due to arrive over the next two months, which the government hopes will address temporary shortcomings.

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