Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended the availability of Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) in Australia, claiming the tests “are in short supply all around the world” as Unions demand greater support to keep workers safe amid an ongoing workforce crisis.
The rapid tests have been in short supply across the country as pharmacies and retailers struggle to keep up with demand with the government under pressure to secure more.
The shortage comes amid several announcements from Morrison and the National Cabinet regarding changes to the Covid-19 testing and rules around isolation. Following the January 5 National Cabinet meeting Morrison announced rapid antigen tests would be made free for low-income workers, pensioners, and welfare recipients.
Following the January 13 National Cabinet meeting, Morrison announced the expansion of those who could return to work with a negative Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) following a close contact. A move that exempts thousands of workers from close contact isolation in critical sectors including transport, freight, and logistics who can now return to work.
Morrison defended the rollout of rapid testing and his approach to Omicron telling 2GB Radio, “Omicron has changed everything, changed absolutely everything” and that the government was “buying them (RATs) in August to meet the requirements that we had in aged care facilities, and that’s what’s being used right now”.
“We’re now dealing with the virus that is far more transmissible, but 75 per cent less severe. And most people listening to this programme now, I’m sure, now know someone or indeed have had COVID. Now, that wasn’t true six months ago. It’s been a very different virus. It’s putting a lot of stress on our critical supplies, and we’ve made a number of changes to ensure we can try and alleviate that. Whether it’s on changing the close contact rules that we’ve done with driving even harder the boosters into those critical areas, we’ve been working with our poultry producers and distributors,” he said.
“They’re telling us that the changes we’ve made are alleviating the situation. The rapid antigen tests are in short supply all around the world. This is not something that is unique to Australia going through it. It’s part of dealing with Omicron. Omicron has disrupted everything, so we’ve changed so much to ensure we can get through what is a difficult period. And I want to thank Australians for their patience and pushing through. This is how we get through. We push through.”
However, not all are in agreement that the current changes to get more people back to work has helped the growing worker shortages and supply chain issues. An emergency meeting of national union leaders will meet Monday, January 17 to consider what action will be taken to keep workers safe as employers begin “pressuring Covid-positive people to work”.
Australian Council of Trade Unions Secretary Sally McManus said “we have a monumental workforce crisis with a record level of essential workers sick and unable to work”.
“This has led to an overwhelming of our health systems and a crippling of our supply chains,” she said.
“Too many people are being put in harm’s way and the failure of the Federal Government to secure RATs means we do not have the tools to keep ourselves and the community safe.
“We have offered to work with the Morrison Government as we did in 2020, but this offer has gone unanswered. We have called on the Government to provide the immediate support working people need, such as free RATs, better masks, proper definitions of close contact and support for businesses and workers in the unofficial lockdown. These requests have also fallen on deaf ears, just like our requests to the Federal Government to secure a supply of RATs six months ago.
“Businesses and working people have waited for this Government to learn from its mistakes and take some leadership – we can’t wait any longer. Unions cannot accept working people being put in danger at work and so we will chart our own way forward.”