The PM has resisted the pressure to make rapid Covid testing free for all, with a reason that stands out. But new research suggests he should rethink.

The Prime Minister this week fought a wave of pressure to make rapid antigenic testing (RAT) free for all Australians.

Despite a record wave of Covid cases sweeping the country, a change to recognize RATs as the preferred method of initial detection, overwhelmed PCR testing centers, price hikes and a reported shortage that leaves Australians looking for them everywhere, Scott Morrison remained firm on resistance to the appeals.

He made a slight concession this week when he announced – with the agreement of the national cabinet – that RATs would be free for more than 6 million Australians, while warning that heavy penalties would be imposed in the event of a rise in prices. price.

Its resistance to making them free for all appears to be influenced by economic reasons.

“We’re now at a stage in the pandemic where you can’t make everything free,” Morrison told Channel 7’s Sunrise program on Monday. “When someone tells you they want to do something for free, someone is always going to pay for it, and that will be you. “

The economic benefit of free testing

However, new analysis from Flinders University reveals that a decision to make testing free for everyone – much like the UK, Germany and Singapore have done – would be “very likely” to win. on the cost savings of not providing the tests.

Professor Jon Karnon, Professor Billie Bonevski and Associate Professor Hossein Afzali said the economic benefit of making them free would be that they would identify asymptomatic positive cases and thereby reduce the spread of Covid-19.

This, in turn, means fewer people are spending time in isolation and the economy is running more smoothly – not to mention the decreased burden on health care due to the reduced number of people falling ill.

“We have developed a model which estimates the cost-effectiveness of a government-funded rapid antigenic testing policy for all Australians,” they said in a joint statement. “We have found that a policy of government funded rapid antigen testing for all is very likely to pay off.”

The researchers said that even minor reductions in transmission rates due to increased early isolation would justify the additional costs associated with the policy.

How did they resolve this?

The researchers created a ‘decision tree’ model, which represents the test pathways for a hypothetical group of people without symptoms of Covid.

“We used it to estimate the number of people with Covid who self-isolate before developing symptoms,” they said. “It is essential that key people isolate themselves as soon as possible to reduce the risk of spreading to others. “

What did they find?

In the group where everyone had access to free rapid antigen tests, the model estimates that a free-for-all policy would successfully isolate an additional 464 people early, compared to a group in which 20% had bought their own rapid antigenic tests.

They said providing free rapid tests to 10,000 people would cost the government $ 100,000, but spending less on PCR tests (which cost around $ 150 each) cuts the additional costs to the government to around $ 52,000.

“But the net effect is preventing 464 more people from infecting more people, reducing the costs to the economy of new infections,” the researchers said. “The costs of isolating these people just after they developed symptoms would likely be much higher than the additional $ 52,000 spent on testing.”

Dividing the $ 52,000 by the 464 previous isolation cases gave researchers an estimate of the cost to the government per person previously isolated with Covid – $ 112.

“The less Covid there is in circulation, the less effective a policy of rapid antigenic testing free of charge for all,” they said. “But even with a low prevalence, it’s still very likely to pay off.

“Limiting the spread of Covid is important for a number of reasons, including avoiding short and long term health effects, reducing the burden on the healthcare system, and increasing the availability of essential workers.

“Easy and fair access to testing is the cornerstone of the public health response to Covid. It also makes economic sense.

The Labor Party is now advocating for the tests to be free.

Jim Chalmers, Shadow Treasurer, told news.com.au Australian workers and small businesses are paying the price for “Scott Morrison’s” incompetence and the absolute mess he made rapid testing. “

“It shows that mismanagement of the pandemic means mismanagement of the economy,” he said.

“You can draw a straight line between Scott Morrison’s failure to order enough rapid test kits and his refusal to make them available free through Medicare with labor shortages and reduced expenses.

“For two years now we have been warning the Morrison government not to be complacent, but time and time again they have let the Australians down.

“Rapid testing makes good business sense and if Scott Morrison had done his job and ordered enough, businesses and workers would be better protected and in a much better position.”