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12 January 2022

What a start to 2022! Thanks, again, to the Morrison Government, we are officially in the eye of the storm, and we are up COVID creek without a paddle.

In politics it's how you handle mistakes that is the measure of your competence.

Scott Morrison's never seen a mistake that he doesn't turn into an Australian reputational disaster. It's a lie a day, a scandal a week. He always seems to be surprised at the most obvious outcomes and events.

First off, he should not have given Novak Djokovic a visa.

Djokovic is the most high-profile anti-vaxxer in the world and he was given the green light to come to Australia by the Federal Government.

There cannot be one rule for conscientious Australians and another for rich and famous people from overseas.

The Djokovic debacle has merely been a distraction to the bigger issue at play: the shortage of free rapid antigen tests available to Australians.

In October 2021 I wrote a column in this newspaper about the need for urgent supplies and usage of rapid antigen testing so Australia could safely reopen.

In the same month, Health Minister Greg Hunt was on the record in an interview downplaying the need for the Morrison Government to supply rapid antigen tests to Australians because it was not a "diagnostic test" only a screening tool.

How the tables have turned.

Mr Hunt has capitulated to the overwhelming international evidence that rapid tests are key to getting through the fourth wave of the pandemic and has repeatedly said supplies are on the way.

True to form, the Morrison Government has over-promised and massively underdelivered.

We knew a deluge of PCR testing was coming our way when we opened up. We also knew we needed a huge supply of rapid tests.

Australians have shown enormous good faith over the past two years by doing everything, no matter how hard or arduous, to keep themselves, their families and the vulnerable safe.

There was never a doubt that we would turn up in droves to get tested in order to follow the explicit directions that allowed us to move around the country again and to be able to see our families for Christmas.

But Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt clearly missed the memo coming from other world leaders, including the US, the UK and Germany rapid antigen tests were going to be easily accessible to tackle the enormous numbers of people needing tests.

The aforementioned nations, which have been ahead of us at every stage of this pandemic, showed the way by making rapid antigen tests free for all.

It's worked. When was the last time you saw TV news footage of thousands of Americans, Germans or Brits lining up to get a PCR test?

In fact, in the UK rapid tests have been freely put in citizen's mailboxes. Imagine if the Australian Government had a postal service on hand to deliver rapid tests to our doors?

Australians are in a quandary like never before.

Our community is awash with Omicron and there is nary a rapid antigen test in sight to allow people to safely test and isolate as needed. As Labor leader Anthony Albanese has aptly put it, the management of COVID-19 testing in Australia has been "diabolical".

Flinders University recently released its economic analysis for the case for free rapid antigen tests for all and found it was "highly likely to be cost effective". And on Tuesday Australian pharmacists put out an SOS to the Government to urgently overhaul the rapid antigen test supply system to stop their stressed and exhausted workforce having to also contend with angry customers.

Rather than investing in rapid tests for all Australians, Scott Morrison conceded a small defeat in his resistance to spending good money on public health and has given 10 free rapid tests to concession card holders over a three-month period. The rest of us have to go to unbelievable lengths to get our hands on a test. The problem is we don't have the supply just yet so people can't access them anyway.

Despite record COVID-19 numbers, Australians who are on Federal Government assistance payments like JobSeeker, parental support and other income supports, are also still having to cross every T and dot every I to ensure they have met their mutual obligations to the Federal Government.

This means, despite many people on these payments either having COVID-19 or being clinically vulnerable, especially people with a disability, they are still having to front up to appointments and interviews, so they don't lose their payments. This is causing a huge amount of stress.

Because of the lack of access to rapid antigen tests, many people are being forced to choose between exposing themselves or others to COVID-19 to fulfil their mutual obligations or are staying home and losing their income.

This is not a choice anyone in Australia should be having to make right now. The Morrison Government must pause mutual obligations for the time being. It's the fair and right thing to do.

Australians must also have access to free rapid antigen tests to get us through the fourth wave.
This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday, 12 January 2022.