Australians all over the country are struggling to find rapid antigen tests (RATs) after the federal government announced a major pivot away from PCR tests and ruled out providing free RATs universally.
Consumers have been struggling to find tests at their local supermarkets and pharmacies and have turned to Facebook groups to ask their local community for help finding them.
There have also been reports of price gouging, with the ABC reporting that one chemist in Sydney was selling multipacks individually to boost revenue.
Consumer watchdog the ACCC said this is generally not illegal, but noted it would call out suppliers exploiting the RAT shortage.
Pharmacy Guild of Australia national president Trent Twomey said RAT supplies in pharmacies and supermarkets should normalise in mid-January.
But for the time being, stores can’t keep up with demand as stock flies off the shelves.
“[Supply] is really patchy at the moment,” Mr Twomey said.
“My pharmacies in Cairns only received stock within the last hour, [and] I’ll probably run out of stock sometime tomorrow.
“I will receive another shipment next week that will probably last me a couple of days as well, and then I’ll run out again.”
Fresh supplies coming, but not enough
A spokesperson for Woolworths added: “We’ve been sending tens of thousands of rapid antigen testing kits to our stores each day, but they’re selling through very quickly with the recent surge in demand.
“We have a much larger order of stock on the way from our suppliers and expect the availability of kits to improve for our customers within the next week.”
Writer Marieke Hardy, 45, planned to have a few close friends over for an outdoors celebration at her Melbourne home on New Year’s Eve.
Wanting to keep celebrations as safe as possible, she asked everyone to return a negative RAT before attending, but found herself struggling to obtain enough tests after using up her stash for Christmas.
She likened the hunt for RATs to “Wall Street in the ’80s”, and had to rely on the kindness of strangers on social media to provide her with testing kits for free or at cost.
“Everyone’s got backpacks on running from chemist to chemist – it’s just crazy,” she said.
“It would be funny if it wasn’t so infuriating.”
Ms Hardy said it was hard to follow the federal government’s message to use RATs when there was none to be found.
“You keep trying to do the right thing, and the government is not there to support the community.”
Luke Heeney, 23, said he wanted to test himself for COVID-19 to protect his loved ones and the community, but RATs were out of stock in all of the 10 chemists he contacted in his immediate area in Brisbane.
“Every staff member that I talked to sounded completely exasperated at the question – they’ve obviously been repeating the same line hundreds of times to people looking for rapid antigen tests,” he said.
“A couple even had automated voicemail systems set up to say, ‘If you’re looking for rapid antigen tests, we don’t have it, don’t come here’.
“So obviously the supply lines are entirely broken.”
Mr Heeney said it is clear the government has “thrown in the towel” and are letting COVID-19 “run riot”.
He said since more people testing themselves for the virus will help keep the community safe, testing kits should be considered a “crucial public good” provided free by the government.
“People are trying to exercise their personal responsibility to get tested and look after themselves, their family, and their friends,” he said.
“But if the government is failing in their responsibility to provide testing supplies, how is anybody expected to do that?”
When announcing the shift to a greater reliance on rapid testing, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government would not be providing free RATs other than for testing centres and high-risk sectors such as health care and aged care.
Mr Morrison said it was important for the private market to have “certainty” that the government wouldn’t provide RATS for free.
But he said the next national cabinet meeting, set for January 5, would look at the issue of concessional access in the private market for RATs.
Mr Twomey said the Pharmacy Guild of Australia has been calling for a “hybrid system” for months.
“That system needs to provide both government-funded stock to pensioners, healthcare card holders, and to people that are required to test to comply with a public health order,” he said.
Wealth shouldn’t equal health
Mr Twomey said the Guild has always held the view that you shouldn’t need to have a high level of disposable income to be able to test yourself and your family.
Australian Council of Social Service president Peter McNamara said it is “irresponsible and callous” that the federal government has not yet made provisions for up to three million people below the poverty line.
Meanwhile, Pathology Technology Australia CEO Dean Whiting said his organisation, along with the Small Business Association of Australia and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, approached the federal government several times over the past three months to discuss ways in which rapid tests could be made available cheaply or free of charge.
Nothing has been confirmed yet, but Mr Whiting urged federal and state governments to take this step, which he said would help keep businesses open and lower community transmission.
When asked about the possibility of wider access to free RATs in the future, an ACT government spokesperson said the territory will continue “to respond to the evolution of testing arrangements in the context of higher case numbers and community transmission”.
“National cabinet has also agreed to work on a concessional RAT supply arrangement to provide highly subsidised tests to low-income households,” the spokesperson said.
Before Thursday’s emergency of national cabinet, the NSW and Victorian governments had ordered tens of millions of RATs to distribute them free of charge to their citizens.
But whether they will follow through with these plans after the federal government’s intervention remains unclear.
A NSW Health spokesperson told TND it “is confident that NSW will have an adequate supply of rapid antigen test (RAT) kits by the end of February 2022”.
Private sector caught unawares
The overhaul of the national COVID-19 testing protocol means Australia will now rely more heavily on RATs.
Mr Morrison said the decision to limit the distribution of free RATs was made to encourage private industry, including pharmacies and supermarkets, to bring in more stock.
“They’re not going to go and order quantities to have on their shelves if they fear the risk of that occurring,” he said.
But the private sector has been caught unprepared.
Mr Whiting said it had been aware for about three weeks prior to Thursday’s announcement that there would likely be a market for RATs in Australia, but global supply chain issues had meant there was still insufficient time to secure enough supplies.
However, he said the country has “plenty” of point-of-care RATs, which can only be used under the supervision of a registered healthcare practitioner and will be used in aged care, by large businesses, and at testing sites for confirmed potential cases.
He said it’s just the RATs that can be used at home that are in tight supply.