Federal government blocking retail supply of RAT tests?

When Canberra retailer Gen Sparkle received an email this week informing her that her order of 450 rapid antigen tests (RATs) would be delayed, she was frustrated and disappointed.

Key points:

  • Gen Sparkle ordered and paid for 450 rapid antigen tests, but was told they would be diverted to the federal government as a priority
  • stockbroker Chris Burrell was told his company would not receive its order by the anticipated time for the same reason
  • the federal government is in the midst of acquiring rapid antigen tests, which are expected to be allocated to the states and territories in the coming week.

Ms Sparkle runs a health food store located in the city’s south and said there had been huge demand for the tests among her customers.

She said she had already paid $4000 for the tests and now was uncertain as to when they would arrive.

Australians are desperately searching for (RATs), but retail supplies are limited and unlikely to improve significantly for several weeks.

The tests have been recommended by state and federal health authorities as a preferable alternative to PCR COVID-19 tests, with testing centres and laboratories overwhelmed by the surge in Omicron cases.

Last week, national cabinet also agreed to provide up to 10 free rapid antigen tests for concession card holders over the next three months, after concerns were raised over the cost of the testing kits.

The announcements mean the federal government is in the midst of acquiring a stockpile of the tests, which would then be allocated to the states and territories for use at testing centres and other public clinics.

‘Our customers are absolutely crying out for them’

Gen wears a floral mask and stands in her store, wearing an apron.
Gen Sparkle owns a health food shop in Canberra. She was told her order of RATs would be delayed and the supply would be sent to the federal government instead. (Supplied)

The email sent to Ms Sparkle by her supplier on Monday said there had been a delay in getting her order of RATs to Australia.

They said a flight carrying tests had been cancelled, which accounted partly for the issue, but said the federal government had also “placed a mandate order and will be taking supply for their requirements out of this order arriving this week”.

“At this stage, we are unsure whether it will be the whole shipment or a portion,” the email said.

The supplier added that another shipment was expected late in January, and Ms Sparkle’s order would be filled as part of that as a priority.

“I was pretty disappointed,” Ms Sparkle said.

“We’ve ordered 450 tests, and we did that because our customers are absolutely crying out for them.

“We’re receiving 50-plus inquiries a day from people who are absolutely desperate for these tests for various reasons.

“People are trying to travel interstate and want to go and see their families and there’s so many different personal situations and it’s really sad to hear them and not being able to help.”

Ms Sparkle said it was especially frustrating due to the fact that businesses like hers had already paid for the tests.

“We’ve been waiting for a while, I’ve paid the money,” she said.

“The fact that we’d ordered and we’d paid was irrelevant.”

Ms Sparkle is facing the same demand as retailers across the country.

Manuel Xyrakis owns an independent supermarket in Canberra and said he had tried everything to keep his shelves stocked with RATs.

“As soon as people hear that we’ve got the rapid antigen tests, they ring up, they go crazy,” he said.

“We only had one supply since Christmas. We ran out in an hour.

“We’ve even offered to drive up to Sydney if need be, to pick them up, but they’re saying to us ‘look, we’ll let you know when we get them in.'”

Concerns for businesses without access to RATs

Like Ms Sparkle, Chris Burrell was told today his order of RATs would be delayed due to a “government emergency requisition”.

Mr Burrell runs a stockbroking and wealth management company and had been using the RATs for weeks to ensure staff could continue to work safely.

He had started using RATs as soon as they were available in Australia.

“We were talking to a client a few months ago in the UK and it became clear that they were using RATs in the UK comprehensively,” Mr Burrell said.

“And so it was also pretty clear there that you couldn’t get a PCR test unless you’re really, really sick in the UK. And so this fellow had an aged mother … and he would take a RAT before he went to see her.

“So it was reasonably clear to us … that would become the next iteration of this process.”

He said his company had not ordered huge numbers of the tests, but enough to meet their own demand.

As a member of the stock exchange, his company was listed as an essential business and had been using the rapid tests to make staff feel safer about being in the workplace.

He was now concerned for his staff and the business following the news they would not be receiving their order at the anticipated time.

The concern, he argued, was that businesses across the country would increasingly find themselves unable to operate if they were unable to access RATs, and there was currently no alternative.

Solving the rapid test drought

“They’re concerned about, presumably, individuals ordering too many tests,” he said.

“Well the way to fix that is to have some sort of rationing, but it’s not to take away the tests, because it means the business now can’t get tests through those sites.

“And as we know that the retail pharmacies haven’t had any tests, and they’re all oriented towards individual consumers, but it’s far more important that business gets tests so that business can keep things going.”

Mr Burrell was given some options by the distributor, including waiting for another type of test to be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and shipped later this month, or waiting for a chartered flight carrying another shipment to arrive in February.

The federal government has been contacted for comment.

Do you think it’s okay that the government gets in the way of the public being able to access RATs? Should it have been better prepared? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by ABC News