How Scott Morrison lost the RAT race

While Britain and others embraced rapid antigen testing, the Therapeutic Goods Administration was very cautious in Australia. He approved the sale of more than a dozen different brands from November 1, but that was months after employers demanded them and more than a year after Britain cleared its first kits . This might have made sense in the Delta outbreak, but it was poor planning for future variants – as things turned out when early results showed Omicron to be less severe but more transmissible.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Illustration: Andrew DysonCredit:

Asked in August about rapid antigen tests, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said they should only be used under the supervision of a medical professional. Canberra’s message was that he didn’t want millions of people using RATs to find out for themselves if they had the virus. Would the government change this approach? “We’re definitely looking at that as a component of our next steps,” Kelly said Aug. 6. But those steps took forever.

Today, of course, Morrison wants Australians to use RATs at home to track infections, limit the spread and keep people at work where possible. He finally agreed to what he had been asked to do five months earlier.

Incidentally, the testing nightmare should lead to a more thoughtful debate on health advice. Partisan arguments about the pandemic often include calls to heed health advice and ignore economists or dismiss corporate calls. On testing, employers were right and health chiefs were too slow. This week’s decisions prove it.

It is important to note that rapid tests are not as accurate as PCR tests. Even so, a series of daily RAT results can increase this reliability. This means volume helps. And this is where governments have failed.

It's hard to find rapid antigen tests at retail outlets right now.

It’s hard to find rapid antigen tests at retail outlets right now.Credit:Chris hopkins

One of the concerns of federal ministers last year was that making RAT kits free would lead to unchecked demand and uncapped costs. According to one estimate, matching the UK approach could cost $200 million a week. But the government didn’t have to make them free to make them more widely available. He could have ordered more, and possibly subsidized them, to prepare for the next wave – just as he has with other medical items.

Some heads of state were so confident in their PCR testing centers that they also downplayed the need for RATs. When asked in July if he saw a place for rapid kits in big events and elderly care, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews worried about ‘false positives’ and said the PCR remained the benchmark.

With state testing centers overwhelmed, the mess isn’t just Morrison’s problem. It was up to the States to provide for their share of the burden. Only now, reacting too late to the immense pressure, have NSW and Victoria set up online systems to record RAT results – the same systems Britain has been using for months. There really is no excuse for this failure to prepare Australia for what was happening overseas.

Morrison admitted on Monday that Omicron had spread faster than he and his officials expected. Haven’t they thought about preparing for a bigger wave of cases? While the Prime Minister has argued that testing is a job for states, his excuse will not be accepted by voters. They expect the national leader to lead.

Anthony Albanese called for rapid and free antigen tests.

Anthony Albanese called for rapid and free antigen tests.Credit:James Brickwood

The shortage of test kits has become a national emergency leaving millions of workers in the dark about whether they have the virus just as rules require them to use the rapid kits to find out if they should go to work.

Most Australians have played by the rules throughout this pandemic and made daily sacrifices to observe lockdowns and border controls, but now they are being asked to do the impossible: test themselves with kits they don’t not find.

This is fertile ground for Labor leader Anthony Albanese, given his unnumbered but popular call for free testing. While the federal government has placed urgent orders for 70 million tests this month and next, those kits will arrive too late for some. The result is a bizarre disconnect between Morrison’s assurances during his press conferences – “we have to move on” – and the lived experience of people staring at empty shelves in pharmacies and supermarkets.

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“They have a lot of rapid antigen tests to meet their needs,” Morrison said of the major retailers on Monday. For their staff, maybe, but not for their customers.

Morrison paid a political price last year for telling Australians the vaccine rollout was not a race. Now he finds he is in another race. And he loses this one too.

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