COVID-19: Business, health experts call for free rapid antigen tests as Omicron variant surges

Business lobby groups and health experts are calling for rapid COVID-19 tests to urgently be made free, as fears grow virus numbers may explode during the holiday period.

Federal and state governments have been told rapid antigen tests could ease a backlog of Australians rushing to get tested before Christmas, but will remain unaffordable for many families without support offered overseas.

An emergency meeting of national cabinet will sit this week as the highly infectious Omicron variant grows roots, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison would not reveal whether discussions will include funding the tests.

Pharmacies in Canberra are also warning they are in limited supply, with the highly infectious Omicron variant driving a surge in demand.

Grattan Institute director Brendan Coates says Omicron means vaccines are "no complete silver bullet", and extra layers of protection must be urgently built.

Mr Coates argues free rapid antigen tests would help avert lockdowns and business closures, but warns the Commonwealth is making the same errors behind the vaccine rollout's sluggish start.

"We are being a bit complacent about it right now," he said.

"The rapid antigen tests are a way of reducing both the risk of COVID infection, but also reducing the risk that everyone in the workplace has to isolate.

"So I think there is a clear economic case for subsidising those tests, and it's something that should be happening."

Business and health experts want rapid antigen test subsidies. Picture: Getty Images

Business and health experts want rapid antigen test subsidies. Picture: Getty Images

Rapid antigen tests are less accurate than the gold standard PCR test, but are self-administered and can produce a result within 15 minutes.

They have been available for free in the UK since April, accessible via the National Health Service website or in pharmacies and libraries.

A $1 billion spending spree from Downing Street has made a seven-pack available to residents each day, provided they do not have COVID-19 symptoms and have not been ordered to isolate. But with the tests not available in Australia until November, Mr Coates said the federal government had been lethargic in using its full "tool kit".

"They're just nowhere as readily available here. The same sort of forces that led to us to having a really sluggish vaccine rollout are the same forces that mean that we've been slow to roll out rapid antigen tests," he said.

Demand has surged in the UK, now recording over 90,000 cases a day, leaving tests briefly inaccessible through the NHS last week.

A pre-Christmas scramble for PCR tests, a requirement of entry in many states, has caused two-hour queues across Australia's major cities.

But with many simply wanting piece of mind before attending a family function, Public Health Association of Australia CEO Terry Slevin says rapid tests would ease the backlog by screening low-risk travellers.

Given each test costs roughly $10, he warns they are inaccessible to many large or low-income families.

"It shouldn't be only those who can afford it. For a family of five, to have a test is 50 bucks. That's 50 bucks a lot of people don't necessarily have," he said.

Westpac has been using rapid antigen tests at branches in hotspots and before key events. The bank is understood to have footed the bill.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Andrew McKellar describes the tests as an "obvious solution" for businesses forced to close their doors as their workers awaited PCR results.

"Rapid testing provides an additional line of defence to businesses who are desperate for certainty, ensuring that their staff and customers are safe in the workplace," he said.

"If we are to learn to live with the virus, providing free and accessible rapid testing must be part of the solution."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has convened an emergency national cabinet meeting, set for this week. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has convened an emergency national cabinet meeting, set for this week. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

A Health Department spokesperson said the federal government will consult with "a range of stakeholders", including industry, to see where support for rapid tests would be most beneficial.

"These consultations will inform the Australian Government's considerations on where to provide additional targeted support to help Australia reopen and provide the confidence Australians are looking for as we adjust to living with COVID-19," they said.

But ACT Pharmacy Guild president Simon Blacker warns many pharmacies across the territory, already "inundated" by demand for boosters, will be out of stock "within a day or two".

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The Pharmacy on Northbourne has already sold out with supplies from most wholesalers limited. The business has sent its own courier to Sydney to restock.

Mr Blacker said demand across the ACT has been growing steadily since November, and is now peaking amid pre-Christmas travel and concerns over Omicron.

"People need to be patient and understand that they might have trouble sourcing them. [They will] have to shop around," he said.

It comes as Australian Airports Association CEO James Goodwin has called for the "burden" of testing requirements to be dropped altogether.

"Australia is one of the most vaccinated countries in the world and we need to start relying on this high level of coverage so that Australians can begin to resume life as normal again," he said.

"Compulsory testing has knocked the confidence out of Australians wanting to travel interstate and should really only be required for people who have COVID-19 symptoms."

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This story Push for free rapid tests as Omicron surges first appeared on The Canberra Times.