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Lack of free rapid Covid antigen testing forces Australian small businesses to close

Small businesses have been forced to close during the crucial summer vacation period due to the failure of state and federal governments to introduce free Covid rapid antigen testing, the industry’s top body says.

Alexi Boyd, the director of the Council of Small Businesses of Australia (Cosboa), said he welcomed the announcement by New South Wales Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet that the state had ordered 20 million rapid antigen tests, which he expected would would be available by the end of January.

But Boyd said many hospitality and tourism businesses have already been forced to close due to staff shortages amid a dramatic increase in cases led by NSW caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

In October, Cosboa, unions and transportation agencies called on governments to conduct rapid antigen tests that provide results within minutes, free of charge for small businesses.

“With the reopening of the economy, we could see that workers would not unnecessarily re-enter the workforce and put people at risk,” she said.

She said the long wait times seen at stations delivering polymerase chain reaction tests, which are more reliable than rapid antigen tests but take longer to give a result, were foreseeable at the time.

“These lines at PCR testing facilities, of course they would happen,” she said.

Speaking at Wagga Wagga on Tuesday, Perrottet said the NSW government had “placed an order for 20m rapid antigen testing”.

“My expectation is that they will be available at the end of January,” he said.

“As we move into 2022, as we live alongside the virus and take personal responsibility, rapid antigen testing will be key.

“They should not be used in conditions where you go to the shops. These tests will be used for people who go to high-risk institutions. Going to hospitals, visiting elderly relatives, going out.”

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Boyd said Cosboa was “very pleased to see the NSW government taking action and showing some leadership in this regard and recognizing that RATs are an important factor”.

“If all the governments in Australia, including the federal government, had taken action, we might have been in a different room.”

The ACTU has also criticized Scott Morrison for failing to conduct rapid antigen testing.

Last week, Acting Secretary, Liam O’Brien, said Morrison’s inaction led to “test site stalling and a looming crisis in our hands”.

“Scott Morrison’s callous indifference to Australians who cannot afford the sky-high costs of rapid antigen testing proves once again that working people cannot trust this Prime Minister to be there when they need him,” he said.

Boyd said small businesses “had risen to the challenge of keeping their employees and customers — even the less nice ones — safe” and now faced staff shortages in what for many was their peak season.

“For some of them, this summer period, these weeks, could be the income they have to live on for months,” she said.

“There are many businesses that have chosen to close over the Christmas period because of low pedestrian traffic, but more because of the risk of transmission.”

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She said some business owners that stayed open were burnt out from long hours caused by a shortage of workers.

The Morrison government’s decision to close Australia’s borders during the pandemic cut off the supply of overseas labor that some Australian companies rely on.

“Manpower shortages — that’s across the board from accounting and IT to hairdressing and retail,” Boyd said.

“You’ve got staff shortages caused by border closures, you’ve got the ongoing confusion about vaccine mandates, you’ve got the issues around rapid antigen testing.”

She said long wait times for PCR results, which can take days, also made life difficult for contractors working in the concert and event industry.

“They have been told to have results within a certain period of time before an event occurs,” she said. “That creates extra stress.”