Industry groups, economists and politicians are piling pressure on the Morrison government to make rapid antigen tests free

Industry groups, economists and politicians are piling pressure on the Morrison government to make rapid antigen tests free
Industry groups, economists and politicians are piling pressure on the Morrison government to make rapid antigen tests free. Photo: Getty Images
  • Experts are calling on the Morrison government to make rapid antigen tests free.
  • The criticism comes after the Morrison government made the tests central to Australia’s COVID-19 strategy.
  • The tests have become increasingly expensive in recent days, as retailers have moved to exploit short supply.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Economists and interest groups have called on Morrison to make rapid antigen tests free, as some retailers have started price-gouging Australia’s short supply.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison detailed a new, federal definition for COVID-19 close contacts on Wednesday, emphasising the importance of rapid antigen testing to take pressure off the public health system.

Contrary to statements made by state leaders the day before, Morrison told reporters that rapid antigen tests would not be made freely available to the general public.

Steven Hamilton, assistant professor of economics at George Washington University, said making rapid antigen tests free and widely available “isn’t just about fairness”.

“When you learn you have COVID, that benefits you but it also benefits many more others,” Hamilton said. “Rapid tests are a common good that should be paid for by the Commonwealth.”

Morrison on Wednesday said his government had opted against doing so after significant lobbying efforts made by testing manufacturers, who had “concerns”.

But industry groups came out on Friday morning denying the Prime Minister’s claims, saying they hadn’t put any pressure on any state or federal governments to renege on promises to make the tests free.

“It doesn’t matter to us whether they’re free, subsidised or other some other thing,” said Dean Whiting, the chief executive of Pathology Technology Australia.

“The industry doesn’t have a position because we sell to the government for market price and we don’t care if they are free or not.”

Beyond the bureaucratic U-turn, other groups called the privatisation of essential rapid antigen tests during a pandemic as “irresponsible and callous”, driving a wedge in equity.

Peter McNamara, president of the Australian Council of Social Service, aired concerns over those living on welfare who, even if they were able to find available tests, could afford them.

“It is irresponsible and callous of the federal government to fail to make provisions for up to three million people already struggling to survive below the poverty line,” McNamara said.

“Especially when we have evidence that people living in the lowest socioeconomic groups have experienced almost four times as many COVID-19 deaths as people in the highest income group,” he said.

Reports from across the country have shown that some retailers have marked up rapid antigen test prices by as much as 100%, while others have been seen breaking multi-packs up to sell single tests individually to boost profits.

On Thursday, Morrison said that provisions for vulnerable groups, like highly concentrated Aboriginal communities and aged care facilities, to access free rapid antigen tests. The Coalition, though, has yet to formalise a plan.

Until then, rapid antigen tests will only be freely available to those who meet the criteria of the Commonwealth’s new close contact definition at standard testing centres.

Others have since urged Morrison to rethink the move. In a tweet, Chris Minns said the tests should be made freely available as they’re a condition of exiting isolation, while Labor MP Stephen Jones accused the Prime Minister of “telling lies”.

Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley took a swipe at the Morrison government later on Friday, saying that tests should, in fact, be free and widely available.

“We prioritise those that are most at risk in the community, and we’ll work though those that are most at risk in the economy, the healthcare system,” Foley said.

“$10, $15, $20, sometimes $25 a pop is prohibitive for many families. And we think there’s a really important role for government to lead and to partner with the wider community in the provision of the tests,” he said.

“We think they should be free. We think they should be widely available.”