Omicron variant: PM Morrison says rapid COVID tests will be subsidised

Australia needed stockpiles of rapid COVID-19 tests "yesterday", a peak medical body has warned, after the Prime Minister signalled a shift away from default PCR tests.

The ACT government has also warned the territory's stockpile is limited, as Canberrans struggle to access rapid tests in pharmacies and supermarkets.

And with around 2000 health care workers in isolation in NSW having been declared close contacts, experts are calling for isolation times for asymptomatic patients to be slashed.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday declared the Omicron variant had prompted a new era in Australia's battle against COVID-19, centred on rapid testing and less stringent definitions of close contacts.

An emergency meeting of national cabinet has been called for Thursday, and Mr Morrison revealed the Commonwealth would allocate $375 million towards subsidising rapid antigen tests.

The Prime Minister accepted the tests were a "precious commodity" amid supply constraints, pledging the Commonwealth would cover half the cost.

But he placed the blame for a lack of rapid test kits at the feet of the states and territories, which he said were responsible for securing supply.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has signalled a shift to rapid antigen tests as the norm. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has signalled a shift to rapid antigen tests as the norm. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith on Wednesday warned rapid tests were in short supply in the territory, and Canberrans would be forced to "shop around".

"At the moment, we do have some stockpile of rapid antigen tests but they're there for a reason and we're not intending at this point in time to be providing rapid antigen tests to people," she said.

An ACT government spokesman said later on Wednesday ACT Health was currently assessing its position on rapid antigen tests, "including what government supply may be needed moving forward".

The ACT's emergency management committee of cabinet will convene on Thursday morning to discuss rapid tests provisions, before Chief Minister Andrew Barr attended national cabinet.

The Australian Medical Association has been lobbying the Commonwealth for a clear plan on rapid tests for months, arguing they would provide a vital screening function as Australia loosened restrictions.

The association's vice president, Chris Moy, conceded Omicron had proven a "spanner in the works", but said Australia had not prepared for an inevitable shift to rapid tests as the norm.

"This time was always going to come in living with COVID," he said.

"Whether they are provided by the private or public [sector], we just need them. We needed them yesterday."

Queensland had earlier signalled a shift away from PCR tests, announcing a negative rapid test result will be accepted as a condition of entry from January 1.

Dr Moy said PCR tests - more accurate, but slower to produce a result - were necessary while attempting to "snuff out every case".

But with NSW recording over 11,000 cases on Wednesday, and testing queues across the country groaning under the weight of demand, he said it was clear that was no longer feasible.

"That's where we are now, clearly so. It's so obvious that we have shifted," Dr Moy said.

"Now we've got to use the convenience and the quickness of the [rapid] test. Even though you're going to miss the odd case, you're very unlikely to miss the person who's infectious."

Rachel Stephen-Smith warns rapid tests are in short supply in the ACT. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Rachel Stephen-Smith warns rapid tests are in short supply in the ACT. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Mr Morrison has cautioned Australians not to stockpile rapid tests, which should be prioritised for symptomatic close contacts. But Dr Moy warned many Australians would not feel confident about which test to use, and when.

"With RAT testing, the average punter needs to be able to access it and know when to use it," he said.

NSW has ordered 20 million rapid tests with designs on making them free in early 2022. And Victoria, which has secured 34 million tests, on Wednesday announced rapid antigen tests will be available free-of-charge within weeks.

"We would much prefer them to have a national approach to what is a national and international supply issue. But failing that, as per usual, the states have had to step up," Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley said.

Mr Morrison said national cabinet leaders will also be asked to agree on a uniform definition of COVID contacts, proposed by the Commonwealth. Only people living with, or in the care of, an infected person would be considered a close contact, and only if they had spent more than four hours together.

Close contacts would also only have to isolate for seven days, and undergo rapid antigen tests on day six and day 12 after their exposure.

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With the virus running rampant across Australia, the Prime Minister warned mandatory isolation for anyone who came across a case would be "impractical" and economically damaging.

"If I went down to a restaurant down the road and I happened to pop in and get some takeaway [while] there was a case there, I would not be a close contact," Mr Morrison said.

"We can't have everybody being taken out of circulation because they just happen to be at a particular place at a particular time."

Authorities were increasingly confident Omicron produced less severe symptoms than previous strains, though out-of-control case numbers could threaten the hospital system regardless.

Mr Morrison stressed Omicron hospitalisations were yet to mirror an exponential growth in cases.

"The issue is not the number of cases, the issue is the incidents of serious disease. It is the incidents of impacts on our hospital system in particular in the ICUs," Mr Morrison said.

This story PM heralds new era in testing, but is warned stockpile was needed 'yesterday' first appeared on The Canberra Times.