Features Australia

I don’t give a RATs

And neither should the government — don’t hand out tests for free

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

We have two RATs in our cupboard. I didn’t buy them on purpose. I just happened to be in the line at the supermarket and the woman in front of me asked for a box of RATs. Ever the opportunist, I immediately declared that I’d have one too. After these two purchases, there was only one box left.

The box of two RATs cost about $34, although I didn’t bother to find out the price before I purchased it. I knew enough to know that RATs are in high demand. I noticed later in the week when I went to the chemist that there was a sign that they were out of RATs. I’m told that similar notices are everywhere.

At present, it seems that you can’t get a RAT for love or money. My daughters have ordered them online but there are significant delays in the orders being shipped.  Late January seems to be the expectation for delivery.

What’s the story with these rapid antigen tests? Why should I give a rat’s? And should the government be handing them out for free?

It turns out RATs — more politely referred to as lateral flow tests in the UK – have been around for some time. They are useful in diagnosing Covid. It took our Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) absolutely ages to approve RATs, in keeping with its lackadaisical approach to conducting its statutory duties. But they have been available for use for several months.

It also turns out that not all RATs are the same – RATs ain’t RATs, you might say. Some provide very reliable results, some not so much. It’s easy to find out which brands rank highest. Even so, there will be instances of false positives and false negatives. That’s just the way it is.

Compared with standing in line or waiting in a car for hours, the RAT looks a very good choice. Over the Christmas/New Year period when it was taking hours to secure a PCR (stands for some complicated polymerase chain reaction) test for Covid, the RAT was looking like an outstanding option. (It didn’t help at that stage that several border permits required PCR tests.)

Of course, the minute that RATs became part of our everyday vocabulary, all sorts of worthy types were clamouring for the government to hand out RATs ‘for free’.  Everyone should be able to secure RATs —  or at least a minimum number of RATs —  without handing over any moolah.

Let’s face it, a lot of people have become very used to getting things ‘for free’. The PCR tests have been administered with no charge, although lining up and waiting hours does add to the effective cost to people. Telehealth appointments were delivered ‘for free’. And vaccines didn’t attract a charge.

But as the last two years have surely demonstrated to everyone – and many of us knew this before — once the government becomes involved in what might otherwise be a private market, all sorts of distortions, inefficiencies and complications arise. To be sure, RATs required bureaucratic approval. But once this was achieved, there was a strong case for leaving the supply side to the private sector.

But it would seem that governments  — both federal and state — felt the need to get in on the act and place large orders. And they did so with a considerable lag, seemingly because it wasn’t clear whether we would really need a lot of RATs.

As the Delta variant began to wane, some government ministers began to fear the ‘look’ of rooms of unused, but paid for, RATs. Exposure by some snooping journalist or two and the relevant ministers would have egg on their faces. So, they did what many government ministers are good at —  they procrastinated.

There is even a manufacturer of RATs in Queensland who still doesn’t have approval from the TGA so he is currently selling his product to American customers. Unsurprisingly, the manufacturer will have to wait for TGA approval before it can meet local requests.

So how has the federal government reacted to the calls for ‘free’ RATs? In typical fashion, it has concocted a complicated scheme whereby those who hold concession cards (some 6 million people altogether) will be entitled to a certain number of ‘free’ RATs — 10 every three months has been suggested. But to keep track of these handouts, there will be a complicated bureaucratic registration arrangement like the one that applies to some restricted over-the-counter drugs such as those containing pseudoephedrine and some painkillers.

But wait, there’s more. One suspects that some wily bureaucrat has pointed out to the federal Health Minister Greg Hunt that handing out ‘free’ RATs to a large segment of the population could lead to a secondary market in which high prices are paid for RATs in the context of excess demand.

In an attempt to prevent this outcome, the minister has introduced penalties for the on-selling of RATs. Anyone found to have sold a RAT for more than 120 per cent of the original price could be imprisoned for up to 5 years and/or fined up to $66,6600 (including GST). I guess we should assume that a phalanx of bureaucrats will be scouring eBay listings to find the culprits. Just don’t expect too many fines and anyone going to jail.

(It’s reminiscent of governments attempting to ban scalping outside football matches. The economic rationale for this action is non-existent. Exchange between a person who values watching a match more highly than the person offering the ticket is an example of mutually beneficial trade.  There is also the issue of the practicality of banning scalping.)

In theory, RATs offer a relatively cheap alternative to the expensive PCR tests which are costing taxpayers close to $90 a pop, with the results relatively delayed. But in keeping with government responses to Covid and its various variants, it would seem they have stuffed up the RATs response as well.

No doubt making decisions in the context of uncertainty is not easy, even for politicians. But the most damning aspect of the past two years is the seeming inability of those in charge to learn any lessons and to implement policies based on these learned principles. The result has been maximum inconvenience to people and maximum cost to the taxpayer.

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