The federal health department bought $62m worth of rapid antigen tests on Monday using the “extreme urgency or events unforeseen” provisions of its procurement rules as it seeks to secure stock to meet its commitment to provide free rapid antigen tests to lower-income Australians.
But the massive buying spree by the federal government could further exacerbate the shortage of tests on the open market.
Some suppliers are notifying customers that they are unable to secure supply from their importers and distributors.
Rapid Proof, a Melbourne-based online retailer, told customers on Tuesday it could no longer supply Hough brand tests because the company “could not meet supply”.
Hough is one of the five companies contracted by the federal government on Monday to provide tests. Hough will provide $4.4m worth of rapid antigen tests to the Department of Health between 10 to 17 January, according to the note.
Chief executive Greg Hough said the government had asked for priority but his company was fulfilling orders in the order they were received.
He said the problem causing delays was at Sydney airport, where ground staff had been hit hard by Covid-19. He said he had been waiting for three days for a plane to be unloaded, with more delays expected for incoming shipments in the next few days.
The full contract notes published on Wednesday show the federal government has used a provision in its procurement rules which allow it to avoid going to open tender.
Each note says the government relied on the “extreme urgency or events unforeseen” condition to avoid an open tender process.
The tests were approved for general use in September, and the government has been telling the public for months the new strategy is to live with the virus now that there are high vaccination rates.
Hough told the Guardian he had begun speaking to the government 18 months ago about supplying tests.
“Let’s put it this way: they don’t move fast.”
A spokesperson for the department said they purchased RAT supplies in accordance with Commonwealth Procurement Rules (December 2020), which reflect the Australian government’s commitment to sustainable procurement practices.
“It is doing so through negotiations with suppliers through normal commercial channels, and is not seeking to place itself ahead of other commercial and retail entities.”
The spokesman said no mandate has been issued by the government to divert RAT supplies.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said while the prime minister didn’t need to be “Nostradamus”, he should have listened to health experts and planned for the current Covid-19 outbreak.
“The national plan made it clear that once we opened up there would be an increased number of infections and we needed to make sure we planned for it,” he told the ABC.
He added: “Some $62m of RATs that have been purchased were because of urgent and ‘unforeseen circumstances’ as part of the tender. Well, this was foreseen … we needed Scott Morrison to do his job but he just went through saying, ‘We will all be together at Christmas, it will all be right,’ without putting in place [the] mechanisms required.”
Leaders will decide at national cabinet on Thursday a date for when concession card holders will able to access the tests from pharmacies, as well as rubber-stamp arrangements for the scheme.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions has again called for rapid antigen tests to be free and easily accessible ahead of the meeting.
The ACTU secretary, Sally McManus, said the first priority was keeping workers safe, as leaders discuss adding more industries and workers to the list of close contacts exempt from quarantine requirements.
“The current conflict over this issue is a result of the Morrison government’s refusal to make RATs free,” she said. “Employers do not want to pay, leaving the cost to be borne by individual workers.
“Rapid antigen tests are an essential part of keeping workers and the whole community safe, and this is the only way that businesses will be able to stay open and function.”
The deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, appeared to rule out any widespread scheme to make tests free, as they are in the UK.
“This idea that everybody gets them for free, I don’t know about that,” he told the Nine Network. “The money doesn’t fall out of the air, we take it off your wages, salaries, businesses, to pay for them. It goes on the credit card and you pay for it later on.”
with Australian Associated Press