The Morrison government has claimed Australia’s shortage of rapid antigen Covid tests is because it was planning for Delta rather than the Omicron variant of the virus.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham reinforced that the workforce in coming weeks, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has reinforced that the government had “no idea” that the variant would necessitate a change away from PCR testing to rapid antigen tests, nor that there would not be enough tests to meet demand.
It comes reports say the Omicron variant could take out 10 per cent of the workforce in coming weeks.
Senator Birmingham told ABC Radio that when governments were planning for Australia’s reopening, they had been responding to health advice about the Delta strain.
He said with Delta, there was a “strong preference to keep using PCR testing as much as possible”, while the government acquired rapid antigen tests for use in “critical sectors” like aged care.
Asked whether the government had failed to adequately prepare, Senator Birmingham said Omicron was a “game changer” with those tests now in demand “far in excess of what had been modelled” not only in Australia but around the world.
Rapid antigen tests were approved for use in Australia last September, which came into practice from November 1.
The Morrison government urgently ordered $62 million worth of rapid antigen tests this week, a move that has come under fire by the Opposition.
Senator Birmingham said the government had not ignored health advice.
“If we could all have predicted what the Omicron variant would look like, of course we would have prepared for it in different ways,” he said.
“But ultimately, we modelled very carefully how we would reopen against the Delta variant. Omicron’s changed a lot of that.
“ … We’ve always known that there would be different variants that would (be) different to what we dealt with previously, but it’s not possible to predict precisely what those variants are going to mean in terms of the impact of them.”
Australia’s daily case numbers are now hovering around the 100,000 mark, but health experts anticipate the true number is much higher due to a shortage of rapid antigen tests and long queues at PCR centres.
Senator Birmingham said while case numbers had indeed exploded beyond predictions, the Omicron variant was causing only “mild illness”.
“We’re dealing with a virus that is less impactful on people’s health, less likely to result in severe illness or hospitalisation … We continue to have the second lowest fatality rate in the OECD,” he said.