Shortages, price hikes and protecting our elderly: should rapid antigen tests be free?

An Aboriginal elder is calling on the federal government to make antigen detection tests free for everyone amid ongoing concerns about their affordability.

Key points:

  • A Wiradjuri elder is calling for free rapid antigen tests (RATs) for everyone
  • The states have ordered 84 million more RATs and the Commonwealth has also ordered more
  • The Australian Medical Association's vice-president says vulnerable and low-income people face inequities

Discussions are ongoing between the private sector, and state and federal governments about whether to make rapid antigen tests (RATs) free, with another national cabinet meeting convening tomorrow.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government had "invested hundreds of billions of dollars getting Australia through this crisis" and could not afford to keep spending as much as previous years.

But Wiradjuri elder Cheryl Penrith, from Wagga Wagga, is concerned many large families and low-income earners cannot afford the tests, which is putting the elderly population, and the Aboriginal community, at risk.

A COVID rapid antigen test is sometimes difficult to come by.(ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

"The last thing that young people want to do is pass COVID onto their elders," she said.

"So, I think by having the test before they go and see people is a really important idea. It's really important they do that.

"If there are some tests around it'd be really good if they were accessible for people.

"I'm not just thinking about First Nations people. People are battling anyway and having to pay for something that they normally wouldn't have to pay for; it becomes a bit of a financial burden.

"I think it would be great if they were for free, maybe for everybody."

For Indigenous people, elders provide an important connection to the knowledge of language, culture and history, but the Omicron variant of the COVID virus is making its presence felt among a vulnerable demographic.

"They're the knowledge holders in our families. They're the people that hold families together, they're the nurturers, the caregivers and they're the people that look after everybody," Ms Penrith said. 

"We really need to protect our old people."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the Commonwealth has ordered more rapid antigen tests.(ABC News: Tamara Penniket)'Blame game'

Australian Medical Association vice-president Chris Moy said he is "extremely frustrated" with the current shortage of RATs.

"At the moment there's this blame game between the federal, state and private [sectors] but the bottom line is there isn't enough anyway," Dr Moy said.

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said yesterday the states have ordered 84 million rapid antigen tests, and that "the Commonwealth has ordered further rapid antigen tests".

But Dr Moy said it was too little, too late.

"It'll help then, but it's not going to help now. This is the critical moment as far as Omicron is concerned and we don't have them," he said.

"What we really need, right at this moment, and that is now, is as many rapid antigen tests deployed with individuals given instructions on how to use them."

The Prime Minister says providing free RATs would undercut retailers.

The Australian Medical Association's vice-president Dr Chris Moy.(ABC News: Claire Campbell)Responsibility

Dr Moy said the switch from PCR tests to RATs was always going to happen.

"We're caught completely short; the PCR testing system is completely overwhelmed and we haven't had the rapid antigen tests to transition too," he said. 

"The government's position was to rely on the private market to provide a large number of the rapid antigen tests where they felt they did not need to intervene, which is not the case in countries like the UK where they're obtained free, through the National Health Service.

PCR COVID-19 testing sites across the country are struggling.(AAP: Mick Tsikas)

"So essentially, in a public health crisis, the rapid antigen tests haven't been available and the reliance on the private market has led to a market failure in a very critical moment."

He said lack of communication between the government and private sector has contributed to the shortage and rising costs of tests that are available.

"That is actually a problem then because in some ways, despite this whole mantra of personal responsibility, it completely prevents individuals being able to exercise personal responsibility because they just don't know whether they're infectious before they go out," Dr Moy said.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.WatchDuration: 6 minutes 19 seconds6m How to take a rapid antigen testSocial inequity

Dr Moy said the situation has caused inequity among communities.

"At the current cost we're hearing about, $10, $15, $25, $50 — this is a massive barrier and inequity for people who can't afford it," he said.

"Individuals who are living in areas which are of a lower socio-economic capacity are often the same areas where there's a high number of vulnerable individuals with conditions which make them more likely to have COVID.

"When you have a situation where somebody else visiting them who may not be able to afford it can't make the decision about whether they're likely to be infectious before they see a vulnerable relative, then you have an inequity in terms of the protection level within that community."

The federal government agreed to fund half the costs of RATs purchased by the states which will be handed out for free to close contacts.

"The government have indicated they're going to try to find a way to subsidise the costs … but [there's] two problems: we don't have any rapid antigen tests in large supply and also we need them now," Dr Moy said.

"The transition in terms of needing them was last week, if not the week before." 

Ms Penrith said she just wanted "people to stay safe".

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