The 6.6 million most vulnerable Australians will now be given free rapid Covid tests after an emergency National Cabinet agreed to make stark changes to improve the chaotic testing system.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called a National Cabinet meeting for the first time this year to discuss community concerns around access to the kits and the increased stress on clinics.
Mr Morrison confirmed Australians will no longer need to seek a PCR test if they test positive on a rapid antigen test, and should count themselves as Covid positive.
He also agreed to provide low income earners, welfare recipients and pensioners with 10 free RATs over a three-month period which can be collected from pharmacies.
The Commonwealth will provide 10million rapid antigen tests to be distributed throughout the states and territories for eligible Aussies.
‘I have spoken to the president of the Pharmacy Guild and they are in agreement to provide that service and there will be a maximum of 10 tests that will be provided on a concessional basis over those three months,’ he said in a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.
‘The concessional free tests are being provided to those who have a Commonwealth seniors health card, a healthcare card, a low income card, a pension concession card, DVA Gold card or a DVA white card.’
To access the tests, which is capped at five per month, a recipient will require identification in the same way people need to prove their identity to access certain perscription drugs.
Vulnerable and low income Australians will have access to 10 free rapid antigen tests over a three-month period after the federal government agreed to subsiside the kits
The PM also announced that Australians will not need a positive PCR result to confirm an infection and that a positive rapid test will now be determined as a confirmed case.
‘If you have gone a long, if you are a close contact and had a rapid antigen test and it is positive, you do not need to get a PCR test to confirm that. That will take pressure off PCR testing lines,’ Mr Morrison said in a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.
The decision from the federal government reportedly came after significant pushing from Queensland to provide low income earners with free access to the tests.
However, there will still be millions of Australians who are ineligible for the free kits, with testing centres now only accepting people who have failed RATs or have symptoms.
Retailers, including burger restaurants, convenience stores and service stations, have taken advantage of their scarce supply to sell the tests five times the RRP to up to $50 each on delivery platforms such as UberEats, which sparked furious outrage.
Mr Morrison said such price gouging has now been banned and will result in heavy fines and even prison for anyone attempting to over-charge Australians for tests.
‘If you are selling a rapid antigen test for more than 120% markup on what you have paid for to supply it, then you will be in breach of that regulation. And that carries a penalty of $66,000 and up to five years in jail,’ he said.
Mr Morrison has agreed to provide low income earners, welfare recipients and pensioners with 10 free RATs over a three-month period which can be collected from pharmacies
Infectious diseases expert Professor Robert Booy said making the tests free for some would help alleviate pressure on testing clinics.
However he said they should be made free for everyone and not just those on low incomes.
‘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.’
Victoria recorded 17,636 new infections overnight – but ICU admissions in both states remain steady. Pictured is a testing queue on Bourke Street on December 20
Covid cases in NSW on Wednesday spiked to 35,054 while Victoria recorded 17,636 new infections overnight – but ICU admissions in both states remain steady.
Wednesday’s numbers in NSW are the highest daily total recorded for any Australian state since the beginning of the pandemic – and are a large jump from the 23,131 infections announced on Tuesday.
The number of people in hospital has risen to 1491, from 1344 reported on Tuesday. Of those, 119 are in intensive care units, an increase of 14 in 24 hours.
Shops displaying ‘out of stock’ signs for rapid antigen tests in Brisbane. Concern is growing about access to the kits, which have become increasingly scarce in recent weeks
While ICU numbers are rising, the tally is short of the peak of 244 seen in September.
Victoria’s hospitalisations are at 591, a jump from 516 on Tuesday, with ICU rates dropping by three to 53.
Eight more people in NSW lost their lives with the virus while Victoria had 11 deaths.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison convened a meeting of the national cabinet for the first time this year
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said he is on board with the free rapid antigen test scheme.
‘We will put whatever we need in to ensure people get access,’ he said.
‘If there is a financial agreement that we can reach with the commonwealth government, from my perspective and from the treasurer’s perspective, there is no dollar figure that we wouldn’t put on the table to ensure people get access to these tests.
‘We have a number of rapid antigen tests arriving as of next week. But my message is if you are not required to get a PCR test, don’t line up.
‘I know many people are showing great patience, but we will get through, and I’m looking forward to the discussion today about the provisions of rapid antigen tests.’
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 has heard of some retailers selling the rapid tests for $100, and called for free tests.
Wednesday’s numbers in NSW are the highest daily total recorded for any Australian state and are a huge jump from the 23,131 infections announced on Tuesday (pictured queue for Covid testing clinic in Sydney)
The Victorian Government has meanwhile not ruled out enforcing more restrictions as cases continue to climb, with Wednesday’s numbers smashing the previous record for the state.
Acting Premier Jacinta Allan said while measures such as those around masks were already in place, authorities would be watching closely to see if anything else needed to be changed.
‘Those measures and other very sensible commonsense measures that we’ve got in place will continue to play an important role,’ she said on Tuesday.
‘We’ll continue to look at if there are any other commonsense measures that can be taken.
‘That’s a matter for the Health Minister to consider.’
It comes after a Melbourne emergency physician accused the Morrison Government of ‘painting a rosy picture’ of the Covid situation, adding that although Omicron was less severe than other strains, the surging number of cases means a significant number of people will still be hospitalised.
‘I am concerned about the government response if it paints too rosy a picture,’ Dr Stephen Parnis told The Project.
‘I don’t think the New South Wales health system is strong and going strong. I think it is facing challenges that have never been seen in my lifetime. We need to be honest to keep people’s confidence and trust in place.’
NSW alone has already seen hospitalisations surpass any previous point during the pandemic, however ICU cases remain well below the wave of the more severe Delta variant.
But Dr Parnis said because Omicron ‘spreads like wildfire’ there has been increased strain on testing clinics and community-based healthcare, rather than mounting cases in intensive care.
Hospital rates have continued to climb in both NSW and Victoria but the number of patients in intensive care have remained steady
Many staff members are also being forced to isolate after either catching Covid or being deemed a close contact, putting a strain on already exhausted workers.
WHY IS DJOKOVIC EXEMPT?
Australia’s Department of Health says medical exemptions are handed out if the individual has an ‘acute major medical condition’.
Under the guidelines, these conditions could include:
– Inflammatory cardiac illness in the last three months
– Undergoing major surgery or hospital admission for a serious illness
– A Covid-19 diagnosis that means vaccination cannot be made for six months
– Any serious effect to a Covid-19 vaccine in the past (Note: Djokovic has not confirmed whether or not he has been jabbed)
– If the vaccine is a risk to themselves or others during the vaccination process
– Underlying developmental or mental health disorders
Victoria’s Deputy Premier James Merlino said last month that medical exemptions are ‘not a loophole’.
‘Medical exemptions are just that,’ he said. ‘It’s not a loophole for privileged tennis players.
‘They are medical exemptions in exceptional circumstances – if you have acute medical conditions.’
‘Things like ambulance call-outs, times to be seen in emergency. Inevitably the longer that those times blow out, the more likely an adverse outcome something like an avoidable death,’ Dr Parnis said.
Meanwhile tennis fans have erupted at the decision to grant Novak Djokovic a medical exemption against being vaccinated to play in the Australian Open.
The 20-time grand slam winner posted a picture of himself at an airport on Tuesday morning declaring that he was on his way to defend his title in Melbourne.
‘I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022!’ he wrote.
It comes after a months-long battle with the Victorian Government, officials and event organisers that ended with the nine-time Australian Open champion being granted an exemption.
Australian Open organisers say the medical exemption was granted through a ‘rigorous review process’ that went via the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) guidelines.
But many Australians have now threatened to boycott the event.
Queensland senator Matt Canavan said letting Djokovic play in the first grand slam of the year posed ‘little risk’ because the tennis star had contracted Covid-19 before.
‘Natural immunity by multiple studies is much, much stronger than the immunity you get from having a vaccination,’ Mr Canavan said on the Today show on Wednesday.
‘So there’s little risk here in letting Novak Djokovic in.’
The tennis champ contracted the virus while hosting a party in the middle of the pandemic and has never explicitly revealed if he is or isn’t jabbed.
Currently vaccination exemptions are only handed out in Australia to people who have had anaphylaxis after a previous vaccine or an ingredient in the provided jabs.
People who are immunocompromised can also receive an exemption in some circumstances.
The medical exemption to Novak Djokovic to defend his Australian Open title has divided opinion