RATs on the way amid NSW testing pressure

Tiffanie Turnbull and Jack Gramenz |

NSW’s COVID-19 testing woes are set to continue for weeks, despite millions of rapid, at-home tests on order and a move to make them free for some of the state’s residents.

After a national cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a limited number of rapid antigen tests would be provided free to six million concession card holders across Australia, with each person able to get 10 over the next three months.

He also noted more than 200 million of the tests have been ordered by the federal, state and territory governments.

However, the changes will not help NSW keep track of its escalating infections for a while, with the scheme not expected to be up and running for a fortnight. Rapid tests will remain in short supply and testing sites overwhelmed in the meantime.

NSW reported another record number of new cases, with 35,054 infections diagnosed from 108,844 tests on Wednesday and Premier Dominic Perrottet warning the state was in for a challenging few weeks.

“We need everybody to keep the patience they’ve demonstrated as those case numbers increase,” he told reporters.

He said the government is doing everything it can to drive down testing delays while waiting for some of the 50 million rapid antigen tests it has ordered to arrive.

He also flagged the potential for more people in NSW to be offered the tests for free.

“There is no dollar figure that we will not put on the table to ensure … rapid antigen tests are available to anybody right across the state who needs one,” Mr Perrottet said.

The at-home tests, which begin arriving late next week, will be distributed through PCR testing clinics, as well as vulnerable communities including the homeless and Aboriginal medical services.

The overwhelming demand on NSW testing sites comes as many operate at reduced hours until January 10.

Other states including Victoria and Queensland are facing similar issues, with national cabinet on Wednesday also agreeing to a number of other measures designed to ease the pressure.

Anyone who returns a positive rapid test will no longer need to confirm their infection with a laboratory, PCR test, and testing requirements for international arrivals have been relaxed.

Only close contacts and people with COVID-19 symptoms are encouraged to present to testing sites, which will also soon begin transitioning to rapid tests which will ease pressure on laboratories.

Purchasing limits on the tests will also be introduced, with customers limited to one pack of two or five per day.

However, there are concerns the increased use of at-home tests could artificially drive down case numbers, with the new system to rely on people self-reporting their diagnosis just as NSW prepares for cases to peak.

The number of people in hospital with the virus in NSW has also risen, to 1491, with 119 in intensive care and 32 people on ventilators.

While ICU numbers are climbing, the tally is short of the peak of 244 seen in September.

Among them are young, unvaccinated people, NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said.

“Please reconsider if you’ve actively chosen not to get vaccinated,” Dr Chant said in a video update on Wednesday.

“It’s reasonable to have questions … I would just urge you to talk to someone you trust, your GP, your pharmacist.”

Six men and two women died with the virus in NSW on Tuesday. Two were unvaccinated.