Australian of the Year demands free, daily rapid tests for people with disabilities

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Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott has called for free, daily rapid antigen tests for disabled people as he vows to spend his year in the role fighting for the nation’s 4.4 million people with disabilities.

“If somebody needs a free daily rapid test for them and their family and their carers, so they can feel confident to get out and live their life, then we’ve got to give them that,” Alcott told ABC radio on Wednesday.

Dylan Alcott, the Australian of the Year. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The tennis champion echoed the message of his acceptance speech on Tuesday night, saying while it was great that Australia was opening up after pandemic lockdowns, “for people who are immunocompromised and vulnerable … it’s actually really scary”.

“They’re worried that if they do get COVID, they’re going to be in trouble,” he said.

National Disability Inclusion Scheme Minister Linda Reynolds announced on Monday that NDIS participants could use the funding in their plans to buy RATs for themselves and their carers “where it is required to access their reasonable and necessary supports”.

But Alcott said only half a million Australians with a disability were on the NDIS.

“There are four other million people who aren’t – and they need support, too, so they can be the people that they want to be,” he said.

Fewer than one in five NDIS participants are eligible for the federal government scheme to give up to 10 free rapid tests to concession card holders through pharmacies.

People With Disability Australia president Samantha Connor said making rapid antigen tests available for free was “the only way we’re going to keep everybody safe” and that some in the community had resorted to having friends overseas post them rapid tests.

“We just don’t have the option of being able to isolate in a way that we’re locked down with people who are also never going to leave,” Ms Connor said.

“We’re asking friends in Thailand to send us RATs so that we can survive because we can’t get any off the shelf.”

Ms Connor said many NDIS participants had had their plans cut and should not have to divert funding earmarked for services, even if they could find rapid tests.

“You’re taking away people’s necessary care and support by asking them to fund their own RATs,” she said.

“If you’re paying a couple of hundred bucks worth of RATs, that might mean that you can’t have a shower that week.”

Ms Connor said the statistics were sobering for people with disabilities. A fully vaccinated young person with Down syndrome who had received three doses of vaccine is still 12 times more likely to die from COVID-19, rising to 56 times more likely without a vaccine.

“Realistically, for people who are in receipt of personal care, they will need to have multiple tests done per week, depending on how many support workers they have,” she said.

“This is about making sure that anybody who comes into our homes and exposes us, potentially, to the virus is safe. For people who are clinically vulnerable or at risk, that means that anyone that you come into contact with can potentially kill you.”

Inclusion Australia chief executive Catherine McAlpine said people with intellectual disabilities were at the highest risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 and relied on visits from multiple carers for help with daily living.

“If you’re a person with complex physical support needs or immunocompromised, or a mixture of the two, you’d be wanting to know every day that the people coming into your home are not going to put you at risk,” she said.

Ms McAlpine said that, as well as free RATs, people with disability needed priority access to PCR testing, which they needed to undergo hospital treatment including in some cases sedation to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Peak organisations representing people with disabilities sent a joint letter to the national cabinet on Tuesday demanding “free and accessible access to personal protective equipment, especially N95 or P2 face masks, oximeters, as well as rapid antigen tests”.

Labor’s disability spokesman Bill Shorten said it was “absurd” the government was asking Australians with disabilities to dip into their NDIS funding, and line up with members of the public to buy rapid tests.

“Our Australian of the Year is of course spot on when he says people with disability need access to regular free rapid tests for their own health and safety,” Mr Shorten said.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese on Tuesday said a Labor government would make rapid tests free to all Australians and ration them through the Medicare system.

Ms Connor said people with disabilities must be prioritised for a higher number of free RATs than the general population and this could be achieved through the PBS system, similarly to the Closing the Gap scheme that gives Indigenous Australians access to free medicines.

Alcott said he would spend his year as Australian of the Year advocating for the rights of all people with disabilities, while also lobbying for the future of the NDIS to be “guaranteed”.

Labor is also backing the calls for the Disability Royal Commission to convene an emergency public hearing into the federal government’s record of keeping people with disability safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Omicron wave.

Senator Reynolds said on Monday: “We know that rapid antigen tests are an important tool for ensuring participants continue to access their disability-related supports.”

The minister declined to comment further.

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