Tuesday, 31 August 2021
Questions without Notice
[by video link] My question is for the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Senator Colbeck. Senator, rapid antigen testing kits for COVID-19 are going to be a fact of life for many of us in the next stage of this pandemic. From Monday, unvaccinated people in Sydney will need to take them before they can go to work. I reckon a lot of us will be going the same way eventually. The tests aren't as accurate as lab tests, but they give you a quick answer in 20 minutes and they're just a swab up the nose—easy enough to do on your own. Senator, does your government understand how important rapid tests will be for us in the next few months?
I thank Senator Lambie for the question. I think it's an important one. There are, I think, over 20 different types of rapid antigen tests that are approved for use in Australia through the Therapeutic Goods Administration, and I know that a lot of businesses are already looking at their utilisation as part of the way that they manage COVID-19 and protect themselves and their workforce from it as we go forward.
As you might have heard earlier in question time today, I indicated that we have commenced a process of rolling out rapid antigen tests from the national stockpile to aged-care providers in metropolitan Sydney and regional areas of New South Wales, where COVID is a concern. It is a simple way to get some indication, in a short time frame, of whether or not there is a worker who might have an infection of COVID-19. Senator Lambie, you were right when you mentioned that they don't have the same efficacy as the PCR test, which is being utilised more broadly across the community, but I think they can and will play a role in the management of COVID-19. That's why we're rolling them out through residential aged care—you can get an indication of whether somebody might be carrying the virus before they go to work. That's why business and industry are utilising them already. Even someone who's vaccinated can be carrying and transmitting the virus, so these provide an additional layer of protection to us all as part of our management of COVID-19. As I said, there are over 20 different types of rapid antigen tests that are currently approved, with very good guidelines on the TGA website— (Time expired)
[by video link] In the United Kingdom you can pick up a rapid test for free from any pharmacy. You can take it home and get an answer in 20 minutes. But in Australia, for some reason, we can do the test only if we're supervised by a trained health official, and we have to pay for it ourselves. Is there a reason why the coalition doesn't trust Australians to chuck a swab up our noses?
Again, it's an important question. One of the things that's a very important part of our overall management of COVID-19 is our test, track and trace capabilities. We saw in Victoria last year how important it was, and we see what's happening in other jurisdictions around the country now, where significant effort is being undertaken by states and territories in their testing regimes, their tracking and tracing, and their isolation of the virus. They all play a very important part in that process. You made the point yourself, Senator Lambie, when you talked about the fact that these tests aren't as accurate as the PCR tests that we're using in the broader process. We support the use of these tests under the conditions of approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and supported by the backup of a PCR test if there's an indicator, which is very important.
[by video link] Senator, you and I know that I don't always agree with the business lobbyists, but today Innes Willox, the head of the Australian Industry Group, called on the government to pay for rapid tests when they are government mandated, like in New South Wales. He says that forcing employers to pay for tests so they can get their workers on site is putting a tax on jobs. I reckon he's right. Why are we so far behind once again, and when will free rapid tests be available for every worker who needs one?
In high-risk occupations and high-risk areas we're actually doing that. As I've indicated, we are supporting residential aged-care providers in New South Wales with the provision of rapid antigen tests. Over 120 facilities have already received tests and have started the process. In circumstances where it is warranted we are already providing that level of support, which I think is important, and we'll continue to do that. It's an extra layer of protection for those businesses where we're looking after our most vulnerable. In Tokyo I saw they had over 600,000 types of rapid antigen tests applied throughout the Olympic Games to support the running of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The tests can form an important part of the overall management and testing regime that occurs in the country, but they need to be supported by the efficacy of a PCR test.