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Coalition won’t budge on free rapid Covid tests for all but concession card-holders are covered | Health

Up to 10 rapid antigen tests will be offered free to more than 6 million concession card-holders under a new national cabinet agreement but everyone else who is not a close contact of a case and symptomatic will still have to pay.

State and territory leaders met on Wednesday to consider how to overcome the national testing crisis which has seen pathology services overwhelmed, rapid tests in short supply, and price gouging by some retailers.

Dismissing growing calls for universal free access to rapid antigen tests (RATs), the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said national cabinet had agreed to provide the tests to concession card-holders through the national pharmacy network.

Supplies will become available within the next two weeks and limited to 10 each over the next three months – with no more than five per month.

With the peak in Omicron cases still weeks away, national cabinet also signed off on additional measures to ease pressure on state testing sites and pathology services, which have been plagued by delays.

The changes include ditching a requirement that someone who tests positive using a RAT confirms the result with a PCR test and exempting truck drivers, those being admitted to hospital, and overseas travellers from most testing requirements.

Queensland and Tasmania will continue to require RATs for travel into those states until vaccination rates reach certain thresholds but travellers will no longer be able to access rapid tests at clinics in Victoria and NSW.

The federal government will also seek to shield businesses from occupational health and safety obligations that may be requiring businesses to compulsorily test employees.

“If you are not a close contact, if you are not symptomatic, you do not need to get a test – that is the advice,” Morrison said. If you do fall into that category testing is free, he confirmed on Wednesday.

“We need to ensure that we are focusing those testing resources on the essential tests that are required, not casual tests.”

Morrison, whose proposal for cash payments for RATs was overruled by the state and territory leaders in favour of using the pharmacy network, said none of the leaders had argued for universal access to free rapid tests.

“To make that very clear, universal free access was not considered the right policy response by all of the states and territories in attendance today,” Morrison said.

The cost for the concessional tests will be split between the commonwealth and the states.

Morrison said securing supplies had been the responsibility of state governments but the commonwealth had secured an extra 20m rapid antigen tests with 10m of these to be provided to the states to be used as “point of care” tests administered by health professionals.

A total of 200m tests are now forecast to arrive in the country over the next two months but the prime minister warned that the pressure on the testing system would continue over the coming weeks.

“Not only I, but all the chief ministers and premiers all understand the challenges currently being faced across the country, particularly in relation to the testing queues, we understand is incredibly frustrating and is highly disruptive, particularly the people’s plans at this time of year,” the prime minister said.

He said this was the result of the “volume challenges” posed by the Omicron variant and dismissed suggestions the commonwealth should have secure additional RAT supplies earlier.

The federal government is also making changes aimed at preventing price gouging and hoarding, using changes to the Biosecurity Act to prevent retailers from putting more than a 20% mark-up on tests. Penalties include jail terms and fines of up to $66,000.

When asked how many tests he had personally paid for, Morrison suggested his wife, Jenny, had purchased them when needed for private purposes, but otherwise he had used stock provided by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, provided on Wednesday an update on the current wave, saying that over the past fortnight while case numbers grew, the hospitalisation rate went down as did the proportion of cases in intensive care.

Morrison said state and territory governments would develop a system for reporting positive Covid cases using rapid antigen tests, but in the meantime, he encouraged anyone who tested positive using an at-home kit to contact their GP.

The decision to restrict the access of free tests comes despite a growing chorus in support of making the rapid antigen tests free, including from health experts, unions, business groups, and the federal opposition.

“It’s very clear the simplest way to do it is to make tests free and make them available,” the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said ahead of the meeting.

“People are crying out for action, the economic consequences of this government’s failure to put in place a proper system are there for all to see.”

The Australian Medical Association called for the government to abandon its market-based approach and provide the RATs publicly.

The AMA and the Public Health Association of Australia said freely accessible rapid tests would play an “essential role in a pandemic that is looking increasingly out of control”.

The AMA president, Dr Omar Khorshid, said the government was “running out of time to get widespread use of RATs in the community underway and support people to do the right thing”.

The head of the influential Doherty Institute, Sharon Lewin, also recommended making the tests free as the country shifted its approach, telling ABC’s 730 program on Tuesday night tests should be “widely accessible and free”.

The National Council of the St Vincent de Paul Society said the tests needed to be made free to everyone but particularly the most vulnerable.

“We urge all governments to ensure people with disability or other vulnerabilities, and the people who support them, have free and easy access to these tests,” the national president, Claire Victory, said.

The Australian Youth Affairs Coalition also raised concern about the prohibitive cost of tests for young people which was “impacting their ability to remain safe”.

Amid the rolling testing crisis, the government has been encouraging Australians to take up booster vaccines to try and limit the spread of infections. A total of 176,223 third doses were administered on Tuesday.

More than 64,000 Covid cases were reported nationally on Wednesday – up from 48,000 the previous day. It was the highest daily total during the pandemic in Australia.

NSW registered a record high 35,054 cases and eight deaths, while Victoria reported 17,636 cases and 11 deaths. Tasmania had a record 867 infections, with Queensland reaching 6,781, SA with 3,493, the ACT 810 and the Northern Territory 117.

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