Federal agencies are discussing with the public service union whether rapid antigen tests can be provided to employees in limited cases for workplace purposes and if a positive result will be widely accepted as proof for public servants working from home to take leave if necessary.
The tests are in short supply in Australian despite many people having the option to use one when symptomatic or as a close contact of someone with coronavirus, rather than attending a government PCR testing site.
The federal government has been clear that it won’t make rapid antigen tests free for everyone, with exceptions for concession card holders. Public tenders for nearly $62 million worth of tests to the Health Department were listed as having “extreme urgency” on Tuesday.
Federal bodies contacted by The Mandarin said they were following state and territory advice regarding rapid antigen testing and working from home arrangements.
A Defence Department spokesperson said the self-test kits were “being prioritised” among its staff “according to operational and clinical need to enable Australian Defence Force capability”.
A Health Department spokesperson said monitoring of public health advice was ongoing but “at this stage the department is not requiring any staff to undertake testing before attending the workplace and is not providing rapid antigen tests to staff”.
“Any Health staff member who is unwell is advised not to attend their workplace,” they said. “Health has encouraged and supports staff to work remotely if possible.”
Other employers including Services Australia, the Australian Taxation Office and the National Disability Insurance Agency did not answer questions about whether they would require self-testing to be part of attending workplaces or whether tests had been procured.
It’s understood the ATO has faced supply issues while trying to obtain rapid antigen tests, while Services Australia is developing RAT protocols for a limited number of critical teams attending workplaces and will provide the plan to the Community and Public Sector Union for comment.
CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly said the union was working to make sure public servants had the right to work from home, while also advocating for RATs to be provided by employers to staff when required for work purposes.
“For frontline employees who need to attend the workplace, rapid antigen tests (RATs) will form a key part of COVID-19 risk management,” Donnelly wrote in a letter to public service minister Ben Morton on Wednesday.
“The CPSU supports the view that RATs should be free and accessible for all.”
She said the APS would benefit from sector-wide guidance on the use of RATs, “to ensure a consistent approach”.
The union is pushing for RATs to be provided by agencies when needed due to a workplace exposure; paid leave for employees to get tested and await their COVID results; and proof a positive RAT to be accepted as evidence for any leave taken due to having COVID.
UNSW Canberra Public Service Research Group’s Sue Williamson, a researcher in human resource management, said rapid antigen testing had not been on the agenda in work she did last year for APS agencies on models of hybrid work.
“It seems to have caught a lot of people by surprise,” Williamson, an associate professor, said.
“We know overseas there are lots of free tests, and vending machines with tests. And that’s something that really does need to be formalised rather than an ad-hoc provision.”
She said as working arrangements for 2022 became clearer, workplaces should be considering if the tests would become formal requirements.
“Public service workplaces provide employees with flu shots once a year, rapid antigen tests should become the same sort of thing really because it is about workplace health and safety,” Williamson said.