The ACT Government has moved to again clarify the rules surrounding the need to pay for COVID-19 tests for domestic travel, with the Health Minister conceding it’s been a “rather confusing 48 hours”, and communications issues have plagued the government’s messaging on the issue.
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith attributed this confusion to a lack of clear internal communications filtering down to ACT Government staff working on the ground at testing centres, as well as broader uncertainty over other jurisdictions’ travel rules and around Commonwealth funding.
Individuals who are required under a public health order to return a negative COVID-19 PCR test to travel interstate will not have to pay for it, as long as the other jurisdiction will allow them to enter with just a text message as proof of their COVID-negative status.
Further clarification is also expected around what the situation will be if another state requires more than the text message as proof, such as a certificate.
Ms Stephen-Smith said providing a negative COVID-19 certificate has previously attracted a $112 fee and this has been in place since the beginning of the pandemic last year, although it was unclear if the Commonwealth had jointly funded the cost of the test itself.
Most states and territories requiring a negative PCR test as a condition of entry have not yet updated their entry requirements online regarding what they will accept as proof of their COVID-19 status.
It’s understood international travel still requires documentation that will attract a fee, but the arrangements for visiting venues such as nursing homes – some of which require a negative COVID-19 result – remain unclear.
The Minister for Health foreshadowed further information about a possible refund being made available for people who have been charged for a service that is now free, although her understanding was that the number of people caught up in this group was very small.
When asked why confirmation of Canberrans being charged for a COVID-19 test by an ACT Government clinic was only able to be provided yesterday, Ms Stephen-Smith said it was due to a misunderstanding.
“My understanding was that there was no capacity to charge a fee at one of our testing clinics and that was actually correct, so what people were being advised was that if they needed a certificate they would be sent it by Capital Pathology.”
She was also being provided with conflicting advice about arrangements at testing clinics: “it was a bit of miscommunication and crossed wires there.”
She apologised to anyone caught up in the confusion and said work was ongoing to ensure all staff working at testing centres had the same understanding and advice.
Ms Stephen-Smith will now call on the Commonwealth to fund testing for domestic travel through private pathology providers, as well as state and territory-run clinics so their service offerings are not undercut.
During question time in today’s Legislative Assembly sitting, Ms Stephen-Smith was repeatedly questioned by the Opposition about paid COVID-19 testing at EPIC.
Ms Stephen-Smith quickly became irritated with this line of questioning, saying the Canberra Liberals were simply repeating questions she’d already provided answers to.
Opposition health spokesperson Giulia Jones today claimed the ACT Government has breached the National Partnership Agreement signed in March 2020.
Yet Ms Stephen-Smith said it was her view, and that of the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, that this agreement had not been intended to cover COVID-19 testing for travel where official documentation, such as a certificate, was required.
Mr Hunt’s late-night announcement signalled a shift away from the Commonwealth’s previous policy, and Ms Stephen-Smith claimed she and her interstate counterparts had been taken by surprise.
The ACT Government’s COVID-19 website has now been updated to reflect the new arrangements.