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As Australia continues to grapple with the Omicron coronavirus variant, one thing is clear: the lack of Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs), a key plank in the nation’s management plan for the infectious variant, continues to impact frontline healthcare workers and the broader population.

While the federal government has committed to obtaining “more than 80 million” RATs across January and February, and state and territory governments collectively have more than 130 million RATs on order, the consequences of the shortfall are playing out across Australia.

Despite the federal government supplying the aged care sector with kits since August, the current situation represents a sharp contrast from the federal government’s messaging in November, where the Prime Minister’s office touted the country’s “proven record of dealing with COVID” as Omicron’s rampant global spread took hold.

For Australian healthcare workers, the problem is two-fold: While a lack of available testing handicaps the nation’s ability to properly manage the surge of Omicron patients. It also puts pressure on staffing numbers and workplace health and safety, the ANMF’s Federal Assistant Secretary Lori-Anne Sharp said to Business Insider.

So, how did it come to this? And what is being done about it, for those who are battling to provide healthcare on the frontline and the broader community.

The warning signs were clear

According to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) “medical experts, businesses, and unions” have supported the use of RATs since they were introduced globally in 2020.

Yet, despite Prime Minister Scott Morison midway last year recognising how the use of tests could monitor staff, keeping them and the community safe, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) only approved the use of RATs for home use at the start of November 2021.

The contrast with other nations was stark: The provision of free RATs continues to be a key management tool since the UK’s reopening in April 2021, while other countries such as Singapore also worked to initially deliver free rounds of testing kits before moving to a retail-based model of distribution.

Yet, in Australia, the emergence of Omicron immediately put the country on the back foot, despite warnings about the need to organise testing supplies as late as September, and as demand for testing surged, the country’s lack of preparedness for a spike in COVID-19 cases was exposed.

The end result for Australians during the Christmas and New Year period was hours long queues and multiple-day waits for PCR test results, price gouging, and a rush from National Cabinet to correct the shortfall of tests.

How has this affected nurses and midwives?

The lack of testing also had significant consequences for the health workforce, including nurses and midwives.

In New South Wales, the impact of Omicron in the sector has hit new levels, with Acting General Secretary of the NSWNMA, Shaye Candish, stating in The Lamp that an average of 110 members per day had contacted the union in the new year, with 80% of their concerns related to COVID-19.

While workers expressed several concerns, many related in no small part to the initial shortage of RATs that workers have experienced, with “members being directed or pressured to return to work while symptomatic,” dealing with “isolation requirements” and needing to advocate to use a RAT as part of worker’s compensation claims.

While the NSW government has ordered 100 million RATs to be delivered in two phases (one that has already commenced in mid-January, and another phase set to commence in February), Ms Candish said nurses and midwives on the ground were already almost at the end of their tether.

“It is outrageous that the Morrison government asks people to rely on RATs, knowing ordinary working families can’t get access to them.” Ms Candish wrote in The Lamp, directing her anger at the federal government’s failure to procure RATs.

“[It’s] diabolical that RATs are not available in nursing homes while many aged care residents still await their booster.”

Other states have also faced difficulties in accessing RATs. ANMF SA Branch CEO/Secretary , Adjunct Associate Professor, Elizabeth Dabars said, while the spread of COVID was inevitable, lapses in preparation for managing and mitigating it, including those related to RATs, were avoidable.

“We knew COVID exposure in South Australia was inevitable, but we do not believe it was inevitable that we would tackle the pandemic without adequate resources and adequate planning,” Ms Dabars said.

How is the union movement responding?

While the Secretary of the ACTU, Sally McManus, has raised the importance of RATs since June 2021, and made repeated calls for the provision of free RAT kits for everyone in the Australian community, union leaders met in mid-January to deliver a plan that aims to ensure safety for all workers, including nurses and midwives.

Supporting workers, organisers and other representatives to demand COVID-safe work plans from their employers, and threatening action if this is not delivered in a meaningful way, the union is especially focusing on the need to get RATs into all workplaces and communities to ensure worker safety across the board.

Ms McManus said, free RAT kits could benefit all response areas of the pandemic, whether that is hospitals, supply chains or other workplaces.

“It is shameful that it is easier for Australians to catch COVID than it is to find a test kit,” Ms McManus said.

“We can limit admissions to hospitals, keep workplaces open and supply chains operating if we have free and accessible RATs.

“It is not the time to be stubborn, it’s the time to respond to the voices of workers, employers and the community who all want this issue sorted, so we can have confidence in our ability to keep safe and manage this pandemic.”

It remains to be seen whether governments — state or federal — can chart a course that ensures the testing demand created by Omicron will be filled, and that should future variants arise, the country and its workforce will be ready for what lies ahead.

Nurses and midwives can access the ANMF’s COVID-19 resources here, while the Australian Unions’ COVID Aware Workplace Campaign can be found here.