At the coalface of yet another major COVID-19 outbreak, Australians have been encouraged to make the most of what little federal support remains available to them as the clock winds down on free access to rapid antigen tests and disaster payments recede into the rearview mirror.
Appearing on ABC’s Radio National on Wednesday morning, prime minister Anthony Albanese urged vulnerable seniors and concession card holders to get in and claim the last 10 free rapid antigen tests available to them before his government brings an end to the scheme at the end of the month.
The program’s host, Patricia Karvelas, asked Albanese why his government would move forward with the decision, as those infected with the new Omicron BA.4/5 subvariant surge to rates considered alarming by pharmacists and GP peak bodies in the thick of a cost of living crisis.
“Well, to be very clear, my government has not made this decision, this is a decision that was inherited from the former government and state governments,” Albanese said.
“We inherited a range of positions from the former government and we also inherited a trillion dollars of debt.”
The line has become a familiar refrain for the new Labor government, just six weeks after taking office. In this instance, the Albanese government could extend the program’s expiry date just as easily as the program was introduced.
Over the last two weeks, state health officials around the country have issued warnings to residents as they prepare for a surge in Omicron case numbers, which are expected to peak in late-July or early-August.
On Tuesday last week, NSW chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, appeared before reporters in her first COVID-19 press conference in months to encourage people across NSW to get their booster shots and mask-up in “indoor spaces, at the shops, and in pharmacies”.
Health officials around the country have issued renewed warnings state-to-state, but those in NSW have been most definitive in forecasting a malicious caseload. Late last month, Queensland’s chief health officer, Dr John Gerrard, said he expected Omicron’s BA.4/BA.5 strain to be the dominant sub-variant seen across the state in the coming weeks.
Even still, the Albanese government has remained immovable on revoking free access to RATs, much to the dismay of pharmacist and GP peak bodies, who on Tuesday called on the government to rethink the decision.
Karen Price, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said shoring up access to RATs for low-income earners and vulnerable members of the community would be critical to fighting this next wave of infections.
“This virus is not disappearing any time soon, and we must step up measures to reduce community transmission,” Price said. “Ensuring access to RATs is an essential tool in the fight against COVID-19.”
The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, meanwhile, said that pulling government support for access to RATs wrongly suggests to Australians that the pandemic is a weakening threat, when the opposite is true.
Previously, Albanese was a vocal supporter of the scheme, and even called for the scheme to be rolled out to a broader set of Australians than what was proposed by the former Coalition government.
Ahead of a national cabinet meeting in January, Albanese—who was the opposition leader at the time—said limiting free rapid antigen test access to seniors and concession card holders was “ridiculous” and called on the former government to make them freely available, along with unions and welfare advocates.
“We have considered the options and it is clear that this is the simplest, most efficient, fairest and most responsible way to fix the mess that Scott Morrison has made of testing at this critical juncture of the pandemic,” Albanese said, as daily national case numbers hovered around the mid 60,000s.
At the time, RATs were understood to cost about $3 on the wholesale market, but the Morrison government’s failure to order enough of them created a fertile ground for a proliferating black market, which saw some retailers price gaoge consumers for more than 10 times the product’s value.
In January, tests could be seen being sold for extortionate amounts everywhere from pharmacies, to Gumtree, to tobacconists, and even Kebab stores, where the product was being added as a menu item available for purchase on UberEats.
Albanese, over the course of various appearances with reporters early this year, used the price gouging to push his arguments for making the tests free, until he eventually back-tracked on them altogether in the lead up to the federal election.
His language started to shift markedly in the first week of May, just two weeks before voters were expected to head to the polls. Five months after campaigning for universal access to RATs, Albanese abandoned his arguments because “times” had “changed”.
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