Pharmacists struggle to meet demand for free COVID test kits amid stock shortage

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Chemists across the country say they do not have enough rapid antigen tests to start handing out free kits to pensioners when the federal scheme begins on Monday, with the Pharmacy Guild criticising the government for failing to regulate the kits’ sale.

Pharmacists are preparing for a rush on rapid antigen tests on day one of the program to supply up to 10 free tests to 6.6 million concession cardholders. While the big chain stores such as Chemist Warehouse will have plenty of kits, thousands of smaller chemists have struggled to find stock.

Collingwood pharmacist Wan Lim says she has not been able to source rapid tests cheaply enough to make it worth participating in the scheme.Credit:Chris Hopkins

“It’s just gone all Hunger Games on us,” Pharmacy Guild president Trent Twomey said.

“The reality is, the bigger the buying power, the more power you have in a supply chain and the better positioned you are to acquire stock.”

Out of almost 5500 pharmacies not associated with Chemist Warehouse, just 700 had rapid antigen tests available for the pensioner scheme on Sunday morning.

Mr Twomey said he expected this figure to rise by the end of Sunday, the deadline for pharmacists to update their details in a searchable online register at that will tell customers where they can find rapid tests.

He took aim at the Therapeutic Goods Administration for approving rapid antigen tests for sale without restricting where they could be sold, comparing them with medical devices such as diabetes testing kits that can be bought only at chemists.

“Why didn’t they regulate?” he said. “It’s really hard once you make everything free market.”

The guild’s Victorian branch president, Anthony Tassone, said most pharmacies he knew of – including his own – would not have the stock to take part in the free test program, but hoped to have supply of the rapid tests by late January or early February.

Wan Lim, a pharmacist at Newton & Leung in Collingwood in Melbourne, said her pharmacy did not have stock because she had not been able to source rapid tests cheaply enough to make it worth participating in the scheme, for which the government pays $10 plus GST per test, along with a $4.30 administration fee.

Small pharmacies must compete for access to rapid tests with supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths, state and federal governments and large pharmacy chains, which have the cash flow to place large orders weeks in advance.

Chemist Warehouse will hand out free five-packs of rapid antigen tests to concession cardholders at all 500 of its Chemist Warehouse and My Chemist stores across Australia, with those in Sydney and Melbourne expected to run out within hours.

“I would temper everyone’s expectations that stock will run out again pretty quickly,” Chemist Warehouse chief operating officer Mario Tascone told the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“If concession cardholders do miss out on day one, don’t panic … We’ve got more stock coming throughout the week.”

A one-pack limit will be imposed to prevent hoarding, while customers who are not pensioners will be able to buy a two-pack only, and the items will not be available online or through click-and-collect.

While Chemist Warehouse was due to receive 1 million testing kits over the weekend from orders placed in December, the vast majority of smaller pharmacies are not expected to have free tests available on Monday.

To be eligible for a free test, patients must have a pension concession card, Commonwealth seniors healthcare card, DVA gold, white or orange card, healthcare card or low-income card.

The union movement is increasing pressure on the government over the rapid test shortage, with a television advertising campaign launching on Monday calling for the tests to be made available free to all Australians.

“Free and accessible tests are one of the best tools we have to keep Australians safe and reduce the strain on our healthcare system,” Australian Council of Trade Unions president Sally McManus said.

“Providing them should be the number one priority for the Morrison government.”

State governments are putting pressure on the rapid test supply chain, with NSW ordering 12 million and Victoria ordering 14 million to be distributed to parents and schools, prompting South Australian Premier Steven Marshall to ask the competition watchdog to probe how the larger states sourced the tests.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is investigating rapid test makers over what Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Health Minister Greg Hunt say are false claims that the federal government “requisitioned” tests ordered by third parties for the national stockpile.

Motion One, the company at the centre of the controversy, has signed a $26.29 million deal with the federal government to supply an unknown quantity of its Orawell saliva testing kits, but has said it is yet to deliver the order.

A federal Health Department spokeswoman said the free rapid tests would be distributed over the coming three months.

“The Australian government has purchased over 70 million RATs and the states and territories have purchased more than 130 million RATs, to be delivered during January and February, ensuring a steady supply of kits for Australia,” the spokeswoman said.

“While we are aware there are supply constraints within the market, it is expected supply will normalise over coming weeks.”

Labor has seized on the lack of tests, with Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese on Sunday repeating that “it’s easier to catch COVID in many places in Australia than it is to catch a RAT.”

“The same mistakes that were made with the rollout of the vaccine have been made for the rollout of the rapid antigen tests,” Mr Albanese said. “The fact is we should have been manufacturing rapid antigen tests here in Australia. Why is it that that wasn’t put in place?”

Mr Hunt said on Saturday that access to rapid tests during the Omicron wave was “a global challenge”.

“We’ve been providing continuous supply [but] there’s been a global spike in demand,” he said.

He said the pensioner scheme was “about having up to 66 million tests available over the course of the coming months”.

Anyone with COVID-19 symptoms should not go to their local pharmacy to seek rapid test kits, which are available free at state testing hubs.

With Carolyn Webb

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