Vulnerable Australians will be most at risk if the Government stops providing free rapid antigen tests (RATs) for low-income earners and other at risk populations, medical and health experts say.
The Federal Government plans to scrap the program, which provides 10 free RATs every three months for concession card holders, at the end of July.
But two peak bodies are calling on the Government to reconsider the decision, with COVID-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths on the rise.
Dr Karen Price, president of The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), warns access to rapid tests for low-income earners is critical to addressing the latest wave.
“This virus is not disappearing any time soon, and we must step up measures to reduce community transmission,” she says.
“Ensuring access to RATs is an essential tool in the fight against COVID-19.”
Dr Fei Sim, president of The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, said that ending the free RAT program sends the wrong message about the risk of the virus.
“The pandemic is not over and the threat of serious illness is still there for many vulnerable people in our communities.
“Testing remains a vital part of our COVID-19 response … Governments should be encouraging more testing, not less.”
Sim added that people needed to show a positive test result from a rapid or PCR test to access antiviral COVID treatments.
“We cannot simply remove the main method of testing that’s accessible to these vulnerable groups.
“The result will be a lot of people not testing at all.”
Federal health minister Mark Butler said the free rapid test program was introduced in the summer in the context of shortages and price spikes.
“The price has come down dramatically: they were running on average at … $25 per test if you could get them in January, to now down to about $8 a test,” he told 3AW radio on Tuesday.
“Pensioners and concession card holders can still get their allocation of up to 10 tests before the end of this month, which should carry them through for a period of time,” he added.
But with cost of living pressures already squeezing bank accounts, Price said that $8 was still a considerable expense.
“Some have jobs that involve regularly coming into close contact with many different people during the day,” she said.
“When you factor in that someone may have to take multiple tests over numerous days, you can see how it quickly becomes unaffordable.”
Treasurer Jim Chalmers also defended the decision, saying that the Government could not afford to continue with the schemes due to budget pressures.
“To restart them would cost a considerable amount of money,” he told reporters in Brisbane.
“We have tried to be upfront with people and say that some of these important programs that have existed in the recent past, which are designed to end in the near future, we can’t afford to extend all of them.”