Omicron: Scott Morrison rules out making rapid COVID-19 tests free despite pleas from small business

Small businesses are warning they could be forced to close their doors again, as the federal government rules out making rapid antigen tests free.

National cabinet will meet on Wednesday to discuss how workplace closures can be avoided as the Omicron variant runs rampant, though Prime Minister Scott Morrison has claimed "we just can't go around and make everything free".

Some large businesses were already funding rapid antigen tests, but soaring demand has seen shortages and price hikes across Australia.

Council of Small Business Organisations Australia chief executive Alexi Boyd warned small companies, already crippled by worker shortages, were being hampered by "exorbitant" costs.

"We don't have the buying power of big businesses to be able to buy thousands of these in quantities at a time. We're paying premium rates," she said.

"In some cases, small business owners are running around town trying to find a chemist where they can get rapid antigen testing simply to keep their doors open."

Scott Morrison says he won't 'undercut' retailers selling rapid tests. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Scott Morrison says he won't 'undercut' retailers selling rapid tests. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

After months of snap lockdowns and density limits, Ms Boyd said small businesses owners had "bent over backwards" to keep their workers safe and their doors open.

"We understand there's not an unending tap of support. We get that," she said.

"But what small businesses need is this weapon in the arsenal against COVID to keep their doors open. These are flourishing, successful businesses that just want to keep trading."

Rapid antigen tests have been provided free of charge in Singapore and the UK, where residents can order seven tests each day via the National Health Service. Health experts have warned failing to follow suit would cut off lower income Australians from vital medical supplies.

But Mr Morrison on Monday claimed the move would "undercut" retailers profiting from the tests.

"We're at another stage of this pandemic now where we just can't go around and make everything free," he told Sunrise.

"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."

The federal government was also working with the states and territories on finalising concessions for pensioners.

'This was foreseen'

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said it was too early to say whether the territory would subsidise rapid tests for small businesses, but it would be considered as part of distribution planning for the tests.

"Obviously the Chief Minister [Andrew Barr] and [Business] Minister [Tara] Cheyne will be working very closely with the business community to understand the impact of COVID-19 in its current phase of the pandemic on those business, but I'm not able to speak to whether or not we'll specifically be supporting the provision of rapid antigen tests at this point," Ms Stephen-Smith said.

Rachel Stephen-Smith says it's too soon to tell whether small business will get rapid test support. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Rachel Stephen-Smith says it's too soon to tell whether small business will get rapid test support. Picture: Keegan Carroll

The ACT government has already committed to working with community sector organisations on low-cost rapid test distribution for disadvantaged and vulnerable communities.

Australia's testing regime groaned under the weight of pre-Christmas demand for PCR tests, with huge queues and results taking up to a week.

Ms Boyd said the COSBOA had received no consultation in the lead-up to Christmas, despite having sounded the alarm on rapid tests since October.

"What's frustrating is the fact that this was foreseen. This was something that could have been dealt with, looked at, and consulted about in the months leading into the Christmas-new year holiday boom," she said.

National cabinet last week also adopted a less stringent definition of close contacts, now interpreted as someone who spent over four hours with an infected person in an "accommodation setting".

Business Council of Australia chief executive Jess Wilson welcomed the move, which she said prevented people being "unnecessarily" taken out of the workforce.

"Australia's largest employers are committed to keeping supply chains functioning and shelves stocked using every tool we have, including rapid antigen testing and COVID safety plans that keep workers, customers and suppliers safe," she said.

'Absolutely critical'

NSW and Victoria both had designs on making rapid tests free in early 2022. Queensland on Monday also announced it had secured 18 million rapid tests, having dropped a requirement for a negative PCR result from interstate travellers.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Andrew McKellar described the rule change as "sensible" given demands on PCR testing.

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But Mr McKellar claimed free rapid tests would prove "absolutely critical" in averting further economic damage.

"When businesses are only just beginning to recover from the devastation of the pandemic, many will be unable to cover the additional costs of rapid testing," he said.

"With the virus now spreading in the community, rapid testing must be part of our arsenal.

"Free and accessible rapid testing means we can detect cases earlier, limit the spread, avoid strain on PCR testing, and keep our economy open."

Anthony Albanese says the Coalition has failed to prepare for a shift away from PCR tests. Picture: Peter Lorimer

Anthony Albanese says the Coalition has failed to prepare for a shift away from PCR tests. Picture: Peter Lorimer

Labor leader Anthony Albanese described free healthcare as "one of the great divides" in Australian politics, saying no one should be unable to access testing because of their income.

Comparing the situation to the early stages of Australia's vaccine rollout, Mr Albanese accused the Prime Minister of failing to prepare for an inevitable shift to rapid antigen tests.

"He identifies a problem only after it becomes a crisis. And then he doesn't act, he just seeks to blame someone else," Mr Albanese said.

"It is unbelievable that the government has told people to not go and get tested, but to test themselves with a rapid antigen tests that aren't available and that aren't affordable.

"This is a public policy failure, the likes of which we haven't seen in this country before."

This story 'Exorbitant': Business plea over rapid test costs first appeared on The Canberra Times.