When Sydney man Scott Sumner woke up in a “full sweat” at midnight on Monday with aches and cold symptoms he thought to himself: “This is not a good sign.”
It was more bad news when the Petersham resident arrived at the Summer Hill testing clinic about 8.15am on Tuesday to find a queue of cars he guessed was 3km long.
Still, he joined it, and inched forward, passing the time with Netflix and hoping he might be home in time for lunch. But at 10.53am, when he was about 100 metres from the clinic, his hopes were dashed.
“They just started calling people through and saying, ‘Nope, we’re done for the day’. I was like, ‘What do you mean you’re done for the day?’” The clinic was closing at midday and they had to end the line somewhere. Sumner didn’t make the cut.
By the time he spoke to Guardian Australia he was in a walk-in line at the Royal Prince Alfred hospital in Camperdown for his third attempt at being tested.
“It’s pretty bad, it’s pretty frustrating,” Sumner said. His head was throbbing in the hot weather and – because he’d initially expected to stay in his car – he had not brought sunscreen. He got home six hours after he left, sick, sunburnt but, finally, tested.
“I feel kind of abandoned,” he said. Throughout the pandemic, he said, “I’ve been trying to do the right thing constantly … I’m now trying to do the right thing again and it’s like, I guess I’ll just get messed around by the government all day. You feel like you’ve done so much to sacrifice already. We’ve done lockdowns, we’ve done all those things, and now it feels like they’re actively not wanting us to get tested.”
In December, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said: “We have to move from a culture of mandates to a culture of responsibility. That’s how we live with this virus into the future.”
But many Australians doing their best to take personal responsibility feel they are being thwarted at every turn. Across the Christmas and New Year period, social media lit up with fury and frustration over lost hours and days as people tried and often failed to do the right thing.
Australians are waiting hours to get tested, waiting days for results, and waiting who knows how long for rapid antigen tests to appear at their local store. If they can afford them, that is.
Instagram account @bondi_lines, which previously posted wait times for popular nightlife spots in the beachside suburb, has started posting testing clinic wait times, as well as advice on where people can find rapid antigen tests.
Tempers are fraying. When a driver tried to cut the line at Summer Hill on Tuesday morning, two “large men” descended on the car, Sumner said. “[They] were banging on the window and saying, ‘You can’t do this’. We had all been in line for hours at that point … everyone’s frustrations were so high.”
Tatiana Paipetis joined the queue at Mascot drive-through, also run by Laverty Pathology, about 7.30am on Tuesday. “I’ve said about five times I wish I had brought a book,” she told Guardian Australia in a phone interview from her car about 11am.
Her voice was muffled by the mask she wore to protect against possible infection from her teenage son, who was lying in the back seat, too ill to sit up.
He had tested negative twice before Christmas and both times received exposure alerts from the walk-in 4Cyte clinic. Now he was sick again after being exposed to the virus on New Year’s Eve and Paipetis thought she better take him to the drive-through. “I’m just trying to protect him and others, because I’m pretty sure he’s got Covid,” she said.
After they had been queuing for about an hour, Paipetis watched a woman get out of the passenger seat in the car in front of her and walk away. She returned half an hour later – with McDonald’s. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this woman went to Macca’s,” Paipetis said. “And she’s probably got Covid because she’s the passenger being driven to the testing.”
Despite waiting nearly four-and-a-half hours to get tested, Paipetis and her son were among the lucky ones. She was within 20 cars of the cut-off point, where those lining up were told to go elsewhere. “They’re going to have a riot on their hands in a minute because they’re telling people they can’t be tested and they’ve been here for hours,” she said.
Paipetis said she could afford to take the morning off work, to use up petrol by running the air conditioner for four hours. But what about people who can’t? “It really is about equity and access that concerns me most,” she said. “This government is clearly looking after private interests and the top end of town, and it’s really not the way we should be operating as a society.”
The Omicron surge came just as private pathology providers closed testing clinics or substantially reduced hours for the festive season. Other closures were simply to cope with the immense backlog of tests. On Monday, Australian Clinical Labs shut a number of sites, stating it was necessary “due to the significant increase in testing volumes across the state”. On Tuesday, of the pathology clinic’s 31 testing sites, 19 were closed and the remaining 12 open during the morning.
All Histopath centres, bar the airport, were either running on reduced hours or closed altogether until 9 January, while several 4Cyte clinics were closed, some until 5 January and others until 10 January. All but a couple of Laverty sites closed at midday on Tuesday, while Medlab Pathology clinics were mostly completely shuttered, one open until 1pm.
“There’s obviously reasons everything slowed down,” Paipetis said. “But it’s not like we couldn’t logistically plan for this.”
And the wait doesn’t end when people finally get swabbed. Balmain man Dean Morelli received a positive test result 126 hours after he was tested – a period of more than five days.
“By the time [NSW Health] got that information and it was published as a daily statistic, I’d substantially recovered from Covid,” he said.
“The state government is hostage to the quality of the data being presented. If the data is inaccurate, it begs the question, what’s the quality of the decision-making process?
“In fairness, I fully appreciate the fact they were totally inundated. But someone’s got to take responsibility somewhere for this situation.”