Work under way for COVID-19 rapid antigen test distribution plan in Canberra amid concern for vulnerable communities

The ACT will consider how it will distribute rapid antigen tests to at-risk communities, amid concerns the fast escalation in COVID-19 case numbers will have a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged demographics.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the ACT would not be evenly felt across the Canberra community.

"I'm particularly mindful that there are going to be groups of people in our community who will see others accessing the freedoms that we have, with eased restrictions, and their response, because they see themselves rightly as more vulnerable to COVID-19 and to exposure and to severe illness, will actually be pulling back on their engagement in the community and in society," Ms Stephen-Smith said.

"That is something I think we really need to take account of. We are going to be consistently focused, as we have been, on ensuring that we are protecting the most vulnerable settings."

The ACT will next consider how it will distribute rapid antigen tests to vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The ACT will next consider how it will distribute rapid antigen tests to vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The ACT reported 448 new cases of COVID-19 on New Year's Day. There were nine people in hospital, the highest number of patients since the end of October. No one was in intensive care.

NSW reported 22,577 cases on Saturday, its largest daily total since the start of the pandemic. There were 35,318 cases reported in Australia.

New Year's Eve crowds in Canberra were also significantly lower than anticipated, with about 5000 people attending the fireworks display at Lake Burley Griffin. No arrests were made. A crowd of between 30,000 and 50,000 had been expected.

State and territory governments this week agreed at national cabinet there would be no wide-scale programs to distribute free rapid COVID-19 tests.

However, state-run concessional programs would make tests available to those who could not otherwise get them.

The Pharmacy Guild said free rapid antigen tests should be made available to frontline healthcare workers, aged care workers and vulnerable people.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith speaks to the media on Wednesday, December 29. Picture: Keegan Carroll

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith speaks to the media on Wednesday, December 29. Picture: Keegan Carroll

But the guild said a free-for-all would risk people trying to stockpile the tests and there being a shortage, as was seen with toilet paper earlier in the pandemic.

The guild's NSW president, David Heffernan, said a hybrid model in the long term could make tests free from pharmacies for those who needed them, while other retailers could sell the kits.

Mr Heffernan said recent price rises for rapid tests reflected higher costs from wholesalers and distributors.

"My last batch were more expensive than previous batches and so although the price was higher to patients, my margin remained the same. Pharmacists cannot be expected to absorb price rises originating from wholesalers and distributors," Mr Heffernan said.

Ms Stephen-Smith said cabinet was yet to discuss what concession program would be introduced for rapid antigen tests in the ACT or where they would need to be distributed.

"I think the way we have responded to the pandemic throughout would indicate that we will be working with our community sector partners to understand what the need is, if there is a need for us to intervene, and then we'll work with them to address what that need might look like," she said.

Ms Stephen-Smith said she had already spoken to officials within the Health Directorate about the work required within the public service and with non-government organisations to understand the impact of the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on different sectors of the community.

"I think in the ACT we have throughout the pandemic been very focused on the impact of COVID and the impact of the measures we take to respond on the most vulnerable people in our community, and in ensuring there is a response that takes account of inequities in access to health services and inequities more broadly in our community," she said.

ACT Council of Social Service chief executive Emma Campbell said the territory's community sector could help ensure rapid tests were put in the hands of those who needed them most.

"It is the duty of the federal government to ensure that all Australians including people on low incomes have affordable, easy access to tests that will enable them to assess their risk from COVID-19 for themselves, their families and their community," Dr Campbell said.

"Before Christmas I met with ACT Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith and emphasised the need for subsidised [rapid antigen tests] for low-income households and also for the community sector workforce that are on the frontline and responding to the ongoing crisis."

The ACT will buy about 1 million rapid COVID-19 tests from NSW at cost later this month, and would further consider working with other states to place larger, more cost-effective orders for the tests.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr agreed rapid tests should be provided when people were required to be tested under public health directions, but other tests needed to be purchased privately.

"I think if you're having five people over for dinner and you want them to have a [rapid antigen test] before they come into your house, that's a private matter that you and your guests would have to pay for. But if you require a test for any public health reason, that would be publicly covered," Mr Barr said in an interview.

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This story COVID test distribution plan under way as concern mounts for at-risk groups first appeared on The Canberra Times.