Coalition questions axing pandemic subsidies as virus surges

The federal government has been caught on the back foot over its handling of pandemic support as the Coalition signalled it would have reconsidered the deadline to axe the sick-pay safety net and free rapid antigen tests were it still in power amid a worsening winter wave.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Treasurer Jim Chalmers advised pensioners on Wednesday to stockpile rapid tests before the subsidy runs out at the end of the month, as the government continues to defend abiding by the June 30 cut-off date for the $750 pandemic leave disaster payment.

Opposition health spokeswoman and former social services minister, Anne Ruston, has signalled the Coalition would’ve kept the subsidies were it still in power.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Albanese told ABC radio that, as well as a $1 trillion debt, his government inherited the decision to end free tests for pensioners from the previous government.

But opposition health spokeswoman Anne Ruston accused the government of being “extremely hypocritical” after promising during the election “they were going to make things easier and better for Australians”.

“Taking these three support measures out at a time when we’re seeing a massive wave of COVID hit Australians, you would have to question the honesty and the integrity of that,” Ruston said.

Health authorities are bracing for a surge of illnesses with projections the current Omicron variants will cause more hospitalisations than the summer spread. The union movement, industry groups and doctors are calling for the reintroduction of a sick pay safety net to help prevent infections.

“The question is around the timing,” Ruston said, adding the pandemic payment was issued so sick people wouldn’t feel the urge to go to work. “We put the supports and subsidies in place for Australians at a time when we were seeing the first Omicron wave go through in December and January, and we were responding to the conditions that were on the ground at that time.”

She said they were “obviously” temporary measures, “but as we have done right the way through the pandemic, we need to be responding to what’s happening on the ground at the time, and things have changed and we’ve seen another wave go through”.

“It’s incumbent on governments to respond to the conditions that are on the ground, and the conditions right now are very similar to the conditions at the time we made these decisions to extend [the supports] back in December,” Ruston said.

The senator, who was the social services minister under former prime minister Scott Morrison, called on the government to reveal the basis for its decision to remove the subsidies: “Was it a budget decision or was it a health decision?”

Health Minister Mark Butler didn’t directly answer a question about whether health advice was sought before following through with the decision to end the rapid test subsidy, however, he said the prices of the tests had reduced significantly since the time the program was introduced.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has told pensioners to stock up on rapid antigen tests while the subsidy remains.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“The program was set up at a time when it was borderline impossible to obtain RATs and those who were lucky enough were paying close to $30,” he said, adding free tests were still available at state clinics or the 129 federally supported respiratory clinics, as well as aged care and schools.

Albanese told ABC radio there was ample time for concession cardholders to get the 10 free rapid antigen tests they were eligible for by the end of June.

In his Logan electorate on Wednesday, Chalmers repeated the prime minister’s advice, and said budgetary constraints prevented the government from continuing with the payments, despite mounting pressure from sections of the community.

“We will continue to take the advice of the medical profession and others to make sure that we are
providing support where we affordably can,” he said.

“But we have tried to be up-front with people and say that some of these important programs that have existed in the recent past, which are designed to end in the near future, we can’t afford to extend all of them.”

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