The Australian government has doubled down on its refusal to offer free rapid antigen tests (RATs) for COVID-19 to the whole population, with Health Minister Greg Hunt maintaining that increased supplies are on the way.
Last week, the US government announced it would provide 1 billion free rapid testing kits to citizens — or four free tests per household.
In Australia, the opposition has called for a similar approach, offering free testing for everyone.
However over the weekend Hunt reiterated that RAT kits would only be provided free of charge to specific groups. For example, 80 million tests have reportedly been secured for those working in the aged care system and Indigenous people.
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States and territories have also been working to secure their own tests, which are expected to be distributed to healthcare workers and vulnerable communities.
Despite the well-documented supply challenges for those trying to get their hands on RATs, Hunt maintained that a plentiful supply is on the way.
“The Australian system, through the Commonwealth and the states, have purchased over 200 million tests, and they’re available through a variety of options,” Hunt reportedly said.
“I think that the US system … is about one and a half tests per capita per head of population,” he added.
“The Australian purchases at this stage are over eight per head of population, and that’s the distribution system that has been agreed with the states and territories.”
Last week, the Australian Council of Trade Unions condemned the government’s failure to provide free rapid antigen tests, saying more accessible tests would protect workers and help keep businesses operational.
“Essential workers are being forced to put themselves in harm’s way to keep food on the shelves, medicines in stock, the lights and water on and keep this country open for business,” ACTU secretary Sally McManus said.
Allowing workers who are close contacts to COVID-19 cases to work will only increase risk and exacerbate the spread of the virus, she argued, thereby putting yet more pressure on the health system.
“We are in this position because the federal government did not do their job and secure adequate supply of free rapid antigen tests.”
Price hikes and RAT scams
The ongoing RAT debacle has caused the ACCC to announce “significant concerns” about retail pricing for tests.
In a statement, the competition regulator said it has received reports of tests selling for between $20 and $30 per test, or more.
“At the extreme end, we have received reports or seen media coverage of tests costing up to $500 for two tests through online marketplaces, and over $70 per test through convenience stores, service stations and independent supermarkets, which is clearly outrageous,” ACCC chair Rod Sims said.
The ACCC has received more than 1800 reports from members of the public regarding RATs since December 25, 2021. It is currently receiving an average of about 150 complaints every day.
Some 90% of those complaints relate to pricing.
The ACCC is also investigating reports of scams related to RATs. Some online stores or individuals are allegedly accepting payments for tests without the intention or ability to deliver them ‘in a timely manner’.
According to price comparison website Finder, scams like this are also circulating on social media, with ‘sellers’ inviting people to pay in advance to buy tests in bulk.
“With RAT kit shortages at an all-time high, Australians should be wary of any private offers to buy tests online,” Finder personal finance expert Kate Browne said in a statement.
“If the offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t give your personal information to anyone that approaches you online who you don’t know.”