The head of Australia’s largest pharmacy chain has slammed the federal government over the bungled rapid antigen test situation.
Chemist Warehouse boss Mario Tascone spoke to 2GB Radio on Monday morning saying the government could lessen the financial burden on sick Aussies by removing GST on the tests if they won’t immediately subsidise them.
‘I’m sure they can get on Zoom and run an emergency session of parliament because the thought the government is making 10 per cent off millions and millions of packets off sales of rapid antigen tests really doesn’t sit right,’ he said.
Chemist Warehouse boss Mario Tascone says the federal government should cut GST on rapid antigen tests to help make the kits more affordable to sick Australians
The demand for tests around Australia has seen single kits sell for as much as $100 – with many chemists unable to re-order stock
There have been reports of rapid tests costing as much as $100 per unit as Covid cases skyrocket throughout Australia due to the emergence of the highly-infectious Omicron variant.
On Monday NSW recorded 20,794 new Covid cases and four deaths, Victoria’s tally hit 8,577 infections and Queensland saw 4,249 as the strain rips through the east coast.
Mr Tascone said the federal government need to be doing significantly more to ensure sick Australians have easy and affordable access to rapid tests.
‘They really need to be as affordable as possible,’ he told 2GB.
The Chemist Warehouse director said the demand for RATs was ‘unprecedented’, similar to that of the toilet paper hoarding at the start of the pandemic, and said dropping GST would see immediate results.
‘They’ll be 10 per cent cheaper overnight we’ll drop the price, its not much but that $50 pack of five becomes $45 overnight,’ he said.
‘So that’s one thing they can do immediately, apparently it needs parliament sitting.
Mr Tascone said the federal government need to be doing significantly more to ensure sick Australians have easy and affordable access to rapid tests
The UK Government has mailed free rapid tests to people’s homes since April but the PM has refused to adopt a similar model in Australia over cost fears
Chemist Warehouse customers can only buy two rapid antigen tests at one time to ensure they were available for everyone.
‘When you’ve got 25 million people who want a rapid antigen test within the space of a week, that’s impossible,’ he said.
The calls were dismissed by the prime minister on Monday however, with Scott Morrison saying ‘we can’t go round and make everything free.’
The UK Government has mailed free rapid tests to people’s homes since April but the PM has refused to adopt a similar model in Australia over cost fears.
Instead, rapid tests are free at testing centres but cost at least $10 per swab at pharmacies and supermarkets, which are low on stock due to a lack of supply.
Members of the public queue in their cars for a COVID-19 PCR test at the Mascot Laverty Pathology Drive-through Clinic in Sydney on Monday
Several medical experts called for rapid tests to be free for everyone, including University of Sydney infectious disease specialist Robert Booy who said free tests ‘could make a real difference to controlling disease’.
But in an interview on Sunrise on Monday morning, the prime minister said this was a bad idea.
‘We’re at another stage of this pandemic now where we just can’t go round and make everything free. We have to live with this virus. This isn’t a medicine, it’s a test. And so there’s a difference between those two things,’ he said.
Australia’s gross debt is expected to reach a record $1.2 trillion by 2024-25 after huge pandemic spending including $100 billion on the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme.
The prime minister is keen to avoid further cost blowouts, saying on Monday he wants to ‘take that pressure off the budget’.
But Mr Morrison said he was working with states and territories to reduce the price for vulnerable groups with ‘concessional access to pensioners and others’.
The cost of subsidising the tests will be shared 50/50 with states and territories.
Mr Morrison also said he would not make tests free because he didn’t want to deter private companies from ordering them so they could make money.
‘The private market, whether it’s in the big warehouse pharmacies or the other pharmacies or the supermarkets, they can now go and stock their shelves with confidence that they won’t be undercut by the government,’ he told the Today show.
Groups representing manufacturers and suppliers of rapid antigen tests said the industry supported tests being free for everyone.
‘The industry doesn’t have a position because we sell to the government for market price and we don’t care if they are free or not,’ Dean Whiting, the chief executive of Pathology Technology Australia told Guardian Australia.
A Brisbane resident lines up for a test on Sunday
Woolworths has denied lobbying against free tests while Coles declined to comment.
University of NSW Professor of epidemiology Mary-Louise McLaws warned in a series of tweets that rapid tests are becoming reserved for the ‘privileged and wealthy’, saying governments need to rethink their current stance.
‘To reduce cost, test hubs could use PCR on those with symptoms & rapid antigen test (RATs) on all others. Cheaper but still effective,’ Professor McLaws tweeted on Sunday.
‘Without providing free RATs to households, only privileged & wealthy will be able to protect themselves & reduce wider risk of spread.
Mr Morrison’s comments also sparked outrage from political opponents who demanded free tests.
Independent Senator Rex Patrick wrote on Twitter: ‘The case for widespread free RATs is clear, but Scott Morrison says ”you can’t just make everything free”. He didn’t say that to big business as they took $billions in JobKeeper money they didn’t need.’
The boss of Australia’s biggest trade union, Sally McManus, also slammed the PM, writing: ‘What’s the price of people’s health?’
Aussies are still lining up to get tests in large numbers. Pictured: A testing queue at Mascot near the centre of Sydney
WHAT ARE THE 15 RAT KITS APPROVED FOR USE IN AUSTRALIA?
VERY HIGH SENSITIVITY – 95% CLINICALLY SENSITIVE
All Test Sars-CoV-2 Antigen Rapid Test – (Nasal Swab) – China
Lyher Novel Coronavirus Antigen Test Kit (Nasal Swab) – China
OnSite Covid-19 Ag Self Test (Nasal Swab) – USA
Panbio Covid-19 Antigen Self-Test (Nasal Swab) – Germany
V-Chek Covid-19 Antigen Test (Saliva) – China
HIGH SENSITIVITY – 90 PER CENT CLINICALLY SENSITIVE
All Test Covid-19 Antigen Rapid Test (Oral Fluid) – China
Hough Covid-19 Home Test (Nasal Swab) – China
My Covid Test Antigen Rapid Test – (Oral Fluid) – China
Orawell Covid-19 Ag Rapid Test (Saliva) – China
RightSign Covid-19 Antigen Rapid Test Cassette (Nasal Swab) – China
Testsealabs Covid-19 Antigen Test Cassette (Nasal Swab) – China
ACCEPTABLE SENSITIVITY – 80 PER CENT CLINICALLY SENSITIVE
Roche Sars-CoV-2 Antigen Self Test (Nasal Swab) – South Korea
InnoScreen Covid-19 Antigen Rapid Test (Nasal Swab) – Australia
Ecotest Covid-19 Antigen Saliva Test kit (saliva) – China
CareStart Covid-19 Antigen Home Test (Nasal Swab) – USA
Labor leader Anthony Albanese stopped short of demanding free tests, instead calling for a means-tested system.
‘People who can’t afford them should be given them,’ he said.
However, NSW One Nation leader Mark Latham backed the PM’s position, saying the tests would be over-used if handed out for free.
‘The problem with unlimited free rapid antigen tests, however, is over-use,’ he said.
‘The level of public fear and panic will have some people, the Covid Curiosity cohort, testing every few hours.’
The need for rapid tests has become urgent as testing queues in Melbourne and Sydney stretched to five hours over the past week due to Queensland’s entry test requirements, clinic closures and more people wanting a negative result before visiting family over the Christmas holidays.
But there is a scarcity of supply after state governments failed to order the tests early enough.