‘Horse has bolted’: Experts say change to testing rules will hide true infection spread

Changes to Australia’s Covid-19 testing regime have been criticised by some medical experts, who are warning surveillance of the virus could be undermined.

Jan 06, 2022, updated Jan 06, 2022

People who test positive on a rapid antigen test don’t have to get their results confirmed with a PCR test in the hope of easing pressure on testing sites, which have experienced surges in demand due to widespread rapid test shortages.

However, experts have warned the shift would lead to the true number of cases not being properly recorded in daily reports, because rapid tests results are generally done at home and are not officially recorded.

University of Melbourne epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely said surveillance would not be accurate going forward.

“The horse has bolted, this is the biggest policy failure so far in Australia,” he told the Seven Network on Thursday.

“We also haven’t thought about how you can load up that data to the surveillance system, so we won’t get that in place in the next couple of weeks.”

Prof Blakely hopes rapid tests sold in Australia would be equipped with a QR code for patients to upload their results.

But infectious disease expert Professor Peter Collignon said getting a PCR test after receiving a positive rapid test doesn’t add much, saying it was useful to gauge numbers before but the situation had changed.

“What you need to do is stay home for the seven days, keep away from others and decrease the chance of spreading it to them as much as possible,” he told Sky News.

“If you’re vaccinated and are a 30- to 40-year-old, your chance of coming into grief is really low. We have support if you need it but don’t get on the (PCR) queue and delay the older people who may need to be in front of you.”

It comes as NSW registered another 34,994 new cases on Thursday and a further six deaths.
There are 1609 patients in hospital, with 131 in intensive care.

Meanwhile, Victoria recorded a new one-day high for new cases, with 21,997 infections and six deaths.

The state has 631 patients in hospital with 51 in intensive care and 22 of those on ventilation.

Tasmania has recorded 751 new COVID-19 cases, with one person admitted to hospital to be treated for virus symptoms. State Public Health Director Mark Veitch has said one-in-50 Tasmanians could be active cases in about a week, up from the current rate of about one-in-170

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 200 million rapid tests would be available in coming weeks but ruled out making them free for everyone.

National cabinet agreed to make 10 tests free over a three-month period for more than six million concession cardholders.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the response was too little, too late in dealing with the rapid test shortage.

“The reason why we have moved to raid antigen tests is because of the failure to plan properly to stop the long queues that formed that caused such frustration in Australia,” he told ABC TV on Thursday.

“I am absolutely not satisfied with (the government’s) plan, nor is the Australian Medical Association, nor are the people I speak to in the community.”

Labor senator and chair of a parliamentary Covid-19 committee Katy Gallagher hit out at the concession plan.

She said the Australian pandemic response had been one where everyone was in it together.

“Huge amounts of funding has been provided to ensure we have been able to live safely. Providing rapid antigen tests to everybody is part of that approach,” she told Sky News.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said tests had always been free for health purposes.

“When you go to a testing clinic, whether it’s a PCR test or a rapid antigen test, and you are going for symptoms or as a close contact, that remains the case that is free,” he told the Nine Network.

“If you are using them for somebody coming to your house or other social or casual uses, then there is an additional private market where people can access that.”

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