Gold standard testing should not be wasted on holidaymakers – Sydney Morning Herald

Opinion

Forcing travellers to get a gold-standard PCR test before flying interstate goes against expert health advice and has to stop.

It was always going to be a tricky balance for states that had kept COVID-19 out to stomach reopening their borders and risk infections. Those reopenings have indeed seen case numbers rise in Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania.

Drivers queue for COVID tests at Bondi Beach ahead of Christmas.

Drivers queue for COVID tests at Bondi Beach ahead of Christmas.Credit:Anna Kucera

But putting the onus of testing on public health systems elsewhere was never a fair system.

Firstly, it has put huge pressure on testing facilities.

In NSW and Victoria, a quarter of all PCR testing is being done for people travelling interstate. In ACT, 50 per cent is for travellers – well above the 10 per cent of tests being conducted for travellers as Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk claimed on Wednesday.

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Secondly, it comes at a time when those jurisdictions are trying to test symptomatic people and their close contacts as they continue to record their highest ever numbers of daily cases.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said it was a “really problematic” system.

“It is very frustrating for those jurisdictions that are trying to manage outbreaks and who really need those people who are contacts or who have symptoms to be tested and to have timely access to testing,” she said after national cabinet’s meeting on Wednesday.

Australia also needs to rapidly ramp up the booster rollout. The issue there is not the number of available doses – there are about 20 million in warehouses or fridges around the country – but rather the lack of staff to run the vaccination clinics and provide the actual injections.

Surely providing booster shots to the vulnerable, the elderly and our frontline workers is a better use of public healthcare workers’ time than performing COVID-19 tests for people who don’t have symptoms but just want a (well deserved) weekend in Noosa.

Melburnians queue for testing on Russell Street in the CBD on Monday.

Melburnians queue for testing on Russell Street in the CBD on Monday.Credit:Justin McManus.

It also goes against the advice of the country’s chief medical officers group, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.

Current AHPPC advice says PCR tests should only be used to help rapidly detect cases of coronavirus and people without symptoms should only be tested in certain circumstances.

“Large-scale, non-targeted, asymptomatic testing in Australia should be strongly discouraged,” the group said in a statement first published last year.

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“Non-targeted asymptomatic testing is neither epidemiologically sound nor a cost-effective approach to identify disease transmission.”

Currently, pre-departure testing is finding one positive case in every 1000 travellers, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at a press conference on Wednesday, compared with between 17 and 20 in 1000 close contacts.

Before national cabinet’s meeting started, Ms Palaszczuk said the state would consider using rapid antigen tests instead of PCR tests from January 1, pending expert advice.

After the meeting, the Northern Territory announced it would ease requirements for PCR tests on days three and six after arrival, although it is keeping the pre-arrival test for now.

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After national cabinet met, the AHPPC agreed to examine whether rapid antigen tests or even no screening could be used in place of pre-departure PCR tests.

But the states don’t have to wait for the chief medical officers’ group to give them a green light.

It would be a great Christmas present to all if states and territories could break their habits of the past two years and stop behaving as individual fiefdoms. Then people could travel freely in their own country and those who need to be tested could have peace of mind before the holidays.

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