PM to take RAT plan to national cabinet

Andrew Brown |

Rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 would be subsidised for people on low incomes under a plan being taken to the next national cabinet meeting by the prime minister.

The plan, set for discussion at the meeting on Wednesday, will see welfare recipients and pensioners get cash payments for up to five rapid tests, or even more if states also put money on the table.

They would need to meet eligibility requirements to qualify for the subsidy.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison could also announce the government will provide millions of free RAT kits to be handed out at state and territory testing centres.

It comes as Omicron cases around the country have surged even further.

NSW registered 35,054 new infections on Wednesday, a one-day record for the state, along with eight deaths.

Hospitalisations in the state have risen from 1344 to 1491 in the past day, while there are 14 more people being treated in intensive care, with the total at 119.

Meanwhile, Victoria also posted a record 17,636 cases and a further 11 deaths.

The state has 591 patients in hospital, with 53 in intensive care and 20 on ventilation.

The national cabinet is meeting on Wednesday for the first time in 2022 to discuss community concerns around access to the rapid testing kits, which have been difficult to source and have escalated in price.

Infectious diseases expert Professor Robert Booy said the proposed measures would go some way to alleviating pressure on testing clinics, but they should be made free for everyone.

“We can’t have a system that doesn’t work, we need to be able to test people by PCR if they have got symptoms or if they are a very close contact,” he told the Nine Network on Wednesday.

“We need to do something and rapid antigen tests are the solution.”

The prime minister has faced increasing pressure to make RAT kits universally free.

The ACTU on Wednesday branded Mr Morrison’s mooted proposal “an attempt to distract from his ongoing failure to make rapid antigen tests free and accessible for all Australians”.

“Mr Morrison is planning to divide the nation by giving a small number of Australians limited access to the health care they need, while everyone else is left to fend for themselves,” ACTU Acting Secretary Liam O’Brien said.

“This does nothing to help small businesses and those that work for them keep their workplaces safe and open.”

But Queensland Nationals Senator Matt Canavan said RAT kits shouldn’t be made free across the board.

“That would just lead to a ‘toilet paper on steroids’ situation where people hoard and take what are limited supplies,” he told Nine Network on Wednesday.

The consumer watchdog on Tuesday acknowledged community concerns some retailers were price gouging on the tests due to their scarcity and asked the community to report pricing anomalies.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair Rod Sims warned the authority would “name and shame” retailers doing the wrong thing.

Health Services Union NSW secretary Gerard Hayes had heard of some retailers selling the rapid tests for $100, and urged for free tests.

“We’ve had the opportunity to look at what happens overseas and yet we don’t put plans in place to make sure we’re ahead of the game,” he told ABC TV on Wednesday.

“I think the government at a federal level should be able to run a logistical campaign that looks after all Australians, whether you’re wealthy, whether you’re not wealthy.”

National cabinet will also on Wednesday consider whether to change the criteria for who is included in hospitalisation figures.

The discussion comes after it was revealed earlier in the week that some people were being admitted to hospital for non-virus related health issues before later testing positive.