Australia

‘Access is essential’: Medical experts urge government to extend free RAT scheme

Vulnerable Australians will be most at risk if the government stops providing free rapid antigen tests (RATs) for low-income earners, medical and health experts say.
The federal government plans to scrap the program, , at the end of July.
Speaking to ABC Radio on Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese advised concession card holders to make use of the program while they still can.
“We inherited a range of positions from the former government and we also inherited a trillion dollars of debt and I would encourage concession card holders to go and get their 10 free rapid antigen tests that they are eligible for by the end of this month,” he said.

“There is still a lot of time to go and do that.”

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Treasurer Jim Chalmers echoed the prime minister’s sentiments, saying the program “had to end at some point”.
“The RATs program was an important program which recognised that around the beginning of this year, it was almost impossible to find a rapid test and if you could, it cost something like $30 a test,” he said.
“Programs like this one have to end at some point … the reality of access to and affordability for RAT tests has changed dramatically since that program was introduced and now seems to be a good time to transition out of it towards the end of the month.”
Mr Chalmers said free tests would continue to be available at some locations, such as aged care facilities .

But two peak bodies are calling on the government to reconsider the decision, with COVID-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths on the rise.

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The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) warns access to RATs for low-income earners is critical to addressing .
“This virus is not disappearing any time soon and we must step up measures to reduce community transmission,” RACGP president Karen Price said.
“Ensuring access to RATs is an essential tool in the fight against COVID-19.”
The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia says ending the free RATs program sends the wrong message about the risk of the virus.
“The pandemic is not over and the threat of serious illness is still there for many vulnerable people in our communities,” president Fei Sim said.

“Testing remains a vital part of our COVID-19 response … governments should be encouraging more testing, not less.”

Dr Sim said people needed to show a positive test result from a RAT or PCR test to access antiviral COVID-19 treatments.
“We cannot simply remove the main method of testing that’s accessible to these vulnerable groups. The result will be a lot of people not testing at all,” she said.
Health Minister Mark Butler said the free RAT program was introduced in the summer .
“The price has come down dramatically: they were running on average at … $25 per test if you could get them in January, to now down to about $8 a test,” he told Melbourne radio 3AW on Tuesday.
“Pensioners and concession card holders can still get their allocation of up to 10 tests before the end of this month, which should carry them through for a period of time.”

Mr Butler said some state governments provided free RATs for people visiting high-risk settings such as aged care facilities and hospitals.

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But with cost of living pressures already squeezing bank accounts, Professor Price said $8 was still a considerable expense.
“Some have jobs that involve regularly coming into close contact with many different people during the day,” she said.
“When you factor in that someone may have to take multiple tests over numerous days, you can see how it quickly becomes unaffordable.”
The move comes despite Mr Butler saying that the rise in infections still had a long way to go.
He indicated COVID-19 cases were not likely to peak nationally for at least four weeks during the third wave of infections.

“All of the modelling indicates that case numbers and hospitalisations have further to go over probably the next four to six weeks,” he told 3AW.

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Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said the rising number of reinfections had brought extra complexity to handling the virus.
“The new BA.4 and BA.5 (Omicron variants) are more infectious and there is strong evidence that you can get reinfected earlier,” he said on Tuesday.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee has recommended the reinfection period be reduced from 12 weeks to 28 days following the rise of cases of the BA.4 and .
This means people will be required to get tested and isolate if they redevelop symptoms 28 days after recovering from the virus, and could be reported and managed as new cases.

NSW and Western Australia have already followed suit.

Pandemic leave payments

Earlier, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has defended the scrapping of pandemic leave payments amid calls for them to be reinstated, laying the blame at the feet of the previous government.
The payments for workers who needed to spend time away from work while they isolated ended on 30 June.
Mr Albanese said he wouldn’t bring back the payments due to the need for the government to rein in spending.

“We inherited the former government’s decision on this and we also inherited $1 trillion of debt,” he told reporters in Sydney.

ANTHONY ALBANESE COVID VACCINATION

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gets his fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose at a chemist in Rozelle, Sydney, on Tuesday. Source: AAP / Dean Lewins

“They are circumstances which my government faces … there are a range of things we would like to do, but we intend to be fiscally responsible in how we deal with issues”.

Under the federal government’s Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment, for each seven-day period of self-isolation, quarantine or caring, recipients were entitled to $450 if they lost at least eight hours or a full day’s work, and less than 20 hours of work.
Those who lost 20 or more hours of work were entitled to $750.
The prime minister received his fourth vaccine dose on Tuesday following .
While case numbers have increased and calls have grown for mask mandates to return, Mr Albanese said he would follow health advice on the issue.
“Mandates on those issues, of course, are a matter for … state governments around the country,” he said.

“We will continue to take advice on these issues by health experts, and we’ve acted on all the advice that has been given during the pandemic.”

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