‘Unprepared’ Australian governments are fast moving to Covid rapid antigen tests to relieve flooded PCR labs – despite the country having a disastrously low supply of the kits and no uniform system to report or act on positive results.
Former head of the World Health Organisation‘s emergency medical unit, Dr Ian Norton, said he pleaded with Australia’s political leaders and health officials to secure large supplies of the test kits six months ago.
‘I’m disappointed we weren’t better prepared because we were advocating for preparation for this for some time, to get ready, to have a stockpile (of RATs) ready to use at the state and commonwealth level,’ Dr Norton told The Australian.
Dr Norton is now, as managing director of Respond Global, working with logistics and supply-chain industries in Australia to help them deal with large portions of their workforce plunged into isolation.
This worker shortage is the driving force behind many supermarket shelves being bare of stock across Queensland, NSW and Victoria in recent days.
Australia is shifting from ‘gold standard’ PCR tests to rapid antigen tests to relieve pressure on inundated labs but there is no uniform system for reporting results and the tests are hard to find (stock image)
Chemists and supermarkets across the country (pictured) are selling out of rapid antigen tests with the hard to find items being sold for big markups but one top health expert said the shortage could easily have been avoided
Dr Norton said the current supermarket shambles could easily have been avoided if the government had reserves of rapid antigen test they could hand out to workers in critical supply industries.
Thousands of these workers have been told they need to isolate as close contacts of Covid infections and can’t return to work until they test negative – yet they can’t access the tests.
‘It’s tough to watch now because we were advocating for so long (to secure RATs) and I remember vividly having lots of conversations with chief health officers and their various staff in different jurisdictions and saying, this is really relevant,’ Dr Norton said.
‘We were watching other countries stocking up on RAT tests and wondering why on earth we were not getting ready in case that happens here. Was it that we truly felt it would never happen to us here?’
After weeks of pharmacies being stripped bare of rapid antigen tests and Australians having to wait up to eight hours in line for a PCR test, Scott Morrison finally agreed to provide free test kits last week – but only to low-income or vulnerable Australians
Supermarkets have been experiencing supply-chain issues in recent weeks with many stores running low on stock courtesy of transport workers having to self-isolate and not being able to access test kits (pictured: a Queensland Coles store on Monday)
Some retailers were reportedly selling the hard-to-find tests for as much as $100 each – with some splitting bulk testing kits and selling them individually for a much higher price.
The Prime Minister was widely criticised for his insistence that tests ‘can’t just be made free’, despite handing out $89 billion in JobKeeper payments to businesses.
And he refused to help the states secure massive kit orders to provide them to citizens, as is done in the United Kingdom and the United States.
This week NSW will move into a dual reporting system for infections that includes positive, self-administered RAT results – reported through the ServiceNSW app – and PCR results.
Other countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States provide free test kits (pictured) to all citizens but Scott Morrison has refused to do the same in Australia
The NSW government has reportedly sought advice on how mandatory reporting of positive RAT results could be legally enforced or at least made an obligation via the app.
Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Terrritory have already introduced mandatory reporting for positive rapid tests, although it is not legally enforced.
People who test positive must fill out a form on the relevant jurisdiction’s website which allows the government to track the number of cases in the community.
On Monday, Western Australia lifted the ban on RATs but has not introduced a means for people to report positive results, instead encouraging PCR testing.