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An aged care provider says it has “no faith” in the commonwealth’s supply of rapid tests after deliveries failed to show for almost three weeks after an outbreak, forcing it to withhold them from essential visitors and scramble unsuccessfully to procure its own.
The government has repeatedly said it is prioritising its stocks of rapid tests to aged care facilities experiencing outbreaks.
But the supply at St Basil’s Homes in South Australia, which runs three facilities in the state, is so precarious that the provider wrote to residents and their families last week, outlining its serious concerns about government supply and warning the tests were “like liquid gold”.
The letter, seen by the Guardian, told families they would need to find their own tests or be barred entry. It also said the provider would be attempting to buy its own tests, which could then be purchased by visitors at cost price.
Asked about the policy, St Basil’s chief executive, Michelle Church, said the lack of supply from government had forced its hand.
“We did not and still don’t have confidence in the supply chain and certainly no faith in the commonwealth delivering on their promise made on the 23 December 2021 that they would supply free of charge RAT kits to all aged care providers,” Church told Guardian Australia.
She said one of St Basil’s facilities had ordered 1,300 rapid tests from the national stockpile three weeks ago, after it was declared an outbreak site.
The order still hasn’t shown up in full. The facility received a partial shipment of 600 tests on Friday. Instead, St Basil’s has had to ration limited supplies across its various facilities and prioritise them for its outbreak site.
“We aren’t the only ones in this situation. I have had providers asking to borrow from us and certainly we have provided [masks] and gowns as these providers were critically short and were desperate,” she said.
“We haven’t shared rapid antigen tests at this stage because we can’t risk our own supply.”
The lack of faith in government supply has forced St Basil’s to attempt to bulk-buy its own rapid tests. So far, that effort has been unsuccessful.
Church said other providers were also struggling to buy their own.
The government this week said it had distributed more than 60m rapid tests to providers experiencing outbreaks.
The industry peak body, Leading Age Services Australia, says the government was yet to fully commence proactive distribution of rapid antigen tests to providers not experiencing an outbreak, despite announcing plans to do so on 23 December.
Spokesperson Sean Rooney said there was still “dire need” of RATs among many providers.
It has also caused providers to restrict visitation, a measure that further isolates residents.
One Adelaide man, whose parents are in a St Basil’s facility, said the lack of rapid tests had forced him to call off visits to his parents, who were extremely isolated due to Covid-19 restrictions.
“St Basil’s has been good at getting them vaccinated and that sort of thing, but they’re finding it hard, they feel even more locked in than usual,” he said.
“They can’t even leave their pod at the moment, they can’t do that, they can’t get visitors. They’re finding that isolation tough.”
The lack of test supply is placing more pressure on the aged care minister, Richard Colbeck, who was revealed on Tuesday to have attended the Ashes Test on the same day he declined to appear at the Covid-19 committee, citing officials’ “urgent and critical” work combating Omicron.
A spokesperson for Colbeck said the suggestion he had “put his sporting commitments ahead of the health and wellbeing of senior Australians … [is] completely misguided” because he had performed other Covid-related duties on that day and the Test was a day-nighter.
Responding to separate questions about rapid test supply on Monday, a spokesperson for the minister said “delivery of rapid antigen test kits is currently being prioritised to facilities in outbreak or recent exposure”.
“More than 78m RATs have been purchased by the government, and these are being prioritised for aged care,” he said.
Colbeck said the government was aiming to provide an “updated guide” to allow for more social interaction for residents, given Omicron was “at this stage appearing not to have as significant health impact”.