Politics

Doctors reveal they warned Australia’s governments to secure rapid antigen tests | Health

Australia’s peak doctors’ body has revealed that it had warned governments to secure rapid antigen tests when they began planning to open up the country, after Scott Morrison described the scarce screening tool as a “precious commodity”.

With fresh claims that the long-standing PCR testing system was “crumbling” as the country recorded more than 18,000 daily Covid cases for the first time, Australians were lining up at pharmacies to try to buy rapid antigen tests (RATs).

Some state governments on Wednesday accused the federal government of not “stepping up” to “fill the gap” by failing to procure more supplies of the vital screening tool, while Morrison called a snap national cabinet meeting for Thursday to discuss the sharp rise in cases fuelled by the Omicron variant.

Dr Chris Moy, the vice-president of the Australian Medical Association, said the community needed access to RATs and clear, simple instructions about when to use them. “At the moment we have neither,” he said on Wednesday.

That was despite earlier warnings from the AMA. Moy said when governments began planning to open up, the organisation “asked and advocated for a clear plan to ensure access for RATs and clear policies for their use, for this very time which was predicted”.

Moy said Australia now faced a critical time as people were struggling to access RATs and the long-standing PCR testing system was “crumbling”.

Small businesses have said many have had to close during the summer holiday period because of the failure of state and federal governments to bring in free RATs.

Morrison addressed reporters in Sydney on Wednesday – the first time the prime minister had held a press conference in a week – and insisted the federal government was “meeting our responsibilities”.

He said he welcomed announcements by the New South Wales and Victorian governments to procure RATs, saying pointedly: “That’s their job, and I’m glad they’re doing it.

“Where a RAT test would now be required rather than a PCR test, state governments, as always, responsible for securing those RAT tests, providing them to people directly, and we will share the costs of those 50-50 with the state government,” the prime minister said.

Morrison said the federal government was responsible for tests in residential aged care facilities and certain other high-risk settings. He said the federal government had been “in the market” for RATs since August, with four million tests already delivered, and “another six million arriving very soon”.

Morrison said he had also allocated an extra $375m “to procure further RAT tests to be part of the national stockpile”, to be mainly used to cover the federal government’s responsibilities for directly providing tests.

The federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, went on the attack, saying Morrison was presiding over a testing “crisis” and was “once again showing a lack of leadership, consistently passing the buck to state and territory governments”.

“Everything that he does is characterised by being too little, too late,” Albanese said.

Citing Morrison’s past comments about the vaccine rollout not being a race, Albanese added: “Now he says with the rapid antigen tests, that not only is it not a race, they’re not even on the field at all. They are leaving it completely to the states.”

Labor’s health spokesperson, Mark Butler, said RATs were “widespread and readily available and highly affordable” in other countries, but pharmacists in Australia were reporting shortages.

Butler urged Morrison to “urgently secure a large stockpile of rapid tests that can be used by businesses and members of the Australian community right now”.

“Yet again Scott Morrison has left Australians dangerously exposed and at the back of the queue,” Butler said.

The Victorian government announced on Wednesday it had secured 34m RATs, to be handed out for free by the end of January.

The state’s health minister, Martin Foley, said Victoria “would much prefer to have a national approach to what is the national indeed and international supply issue”.

“But failing that, as per usual, the states have had to step up over the course of this pandemic and fill the gap that’s been left,” Foley said.

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The NSW government also announced this week that it had placed an order for 20m rapid antigen tests, which were expected to arrive by the end of January. A further order of 30m was announced on Wednesday.

The federal health department said the government had purchased more than 10m RATs for use in residential aged care facilities, and it would “shortly” purchase a further 50m for the national medical stockpile.

A spokesperson for the department said more than 2.8m RATs had so far been supplied to aged care facilities, including 1,650,014 tests to NSW facilities and 1,284,341 to Victorian facilities, the states where the majority of transmission has occurred.

Australia reported more than 18,200 new Covid cases on Wednesday – a new record for the country – including 11,201 in NSW, 3,767 in Victoria, 1,539 cases in Queensland and 1,471 in South Australia.

Morrison will return from Sydney to Canberra for a meeting with state and territory leaders on Thursday. National cabinet had not been scheduled to meet until next week.

Morrison said the country was “going through a gear change” in its approach to Covid. He said with the Omicron variant, the issue was not the “high volume of cases”, but the incidence of serious disease and impacts on the hospital system.

He said there were currently 1,314 people in hospital, including 126 in intensive care and 55 on ventilators – suggesting there was “ample capacity in our hospital system to deal with the challenges that we are presently confronting”.

Morrison said Thursday’s national cabinet meeting would discuss a federal government proposal to narrow the definition of a close contact: someone who lives with a confirmed Covid case “and has spent more than four hours with them”. The proposed definition will also include people living alongside confirmed cases in care settings.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) said just before Christmas that health authorities should consider “more widespread use” of rapid antigen testing.

“This may lead to a requirement in the future to rely more heavily on other levers, including indoor mask wearing and strategic use of rapid antigen testing, to control transmission and impacts, particularly in high-risk settings,” the AHPPC said on 22 December.

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