Amber Crowe is on a RAT hunt that is costing her hundreds of dollars a day – and that’s before she’s paid for a rapid test for everyone in her family.
The Victorian mother of two is in isolation and unable to go back to work until she can prove to her boss that she’s negative.
The trouble is, finding a rapid antigen test anywhere near her home in the coastal town of Torquay is proving nigh-on impossible.
“I had my sister-in-law go to the supermarket this morning at 7am – they were already sold out. My dad’s got his name down at pharmacies in Werribee, trying to get them to get some for us,” she said.
“It’s just impossible and ridiculous.
“How can they expect people to care about this testing business if we can’t get a hold of tests in the first place? It just seems like the system is falling apart.”
The 41-year-old has already been forced to take two days of unpaid leave after husband Gene tested positive to COVID-19 on Wednesday.
And if she fails to provide a negative RAT result on Monday – her sixth day of isolation – her employer will not let her come back to work. Which would mean taking more unpaid leave, as it’s a new job and she’s accrued no paid days off.
“It’s so annoying,” Ms Crowe said.
“It just sucks to be in a situation where you are reliant on these stupid tests.”
Ms Crowe’s story is far from unique on a day when Australia reported more than 78,000 new COVID cases and test shortages continued to plague pharmacies.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been directed to self-isolate in recent days after having either contracted the virus or been confirmed as a close contact, with many forced to miss work or cancel social plans until they can find an elusive RAT.
The COVIDLive tracking website says Australia has more than 392,000 active cases of COVID-19 at the moment – and that’s not counting the many thousands of positive results from rapid antigen tests going unreported across the country.
In response, Australians are locking down even though their state governments are not.
Dinners are being cancelled and trips to the city avoided.
Data released by ANZ bank on Friday shows that consumer spending in Sydney has fallen to its lowest level since the pandemic began, while spending in Melbourne is “now near levels typical of lockdown conditions”.
ANZ senior economist Adelaide Timbrell, who published the data, said in a note to clients that “caution about being in public places is being compounded by staff shortages to stifle spending across dining, retail and travel.”
Ms Timbrell told the AFR that the shift in consumer behaviour was unlikely to be caused by “anything to do with finances”, as Australia’s unemployment rate is low and recent survey data points to strong financial confidence among consumers.
“The big issue is caution about going out in public, and access to hospitality, which has been disrupted by staff shortages and Omicron outbreaks,” she said.
Fear of catching the virus is why Leah*, 24, from Western Sydney, stayed home on New Year’s Eve and watched the fireworks on TV.
She and her family then cut short their holiday to Hyams Beach when her sister complained of a sore throat on Wednesday, stopping by a drive-through testing clinic in Wollongong on the way home for a PCR test.
Leah is now isolating with her sister as they wait for the test results.
But even when her isolation ends, Leah said she would continue to stay at home as much as she can.
“The government’s saying, ‘Go about your life’, but we can’t – we’re still scared,” she told The New Daily.
No customers, no support
For businesses, it’s essentially a lockdown without the financial support.
Melbourne bar owner Maz Salt has already seen three venues succumb to the pressures of the past two years and enter liquidation, but he said the situation has never been as bad as it is right now.
“It’s really horrible,” he said.
“This is worse than lockdown, because we have no support and the staff are really a lot more freaked out at the moment than they were last time.”
One of Mr Salt’s remaining venues, B.East in Brunswick, is now restricted to only serving takeaway as the Omicron wave has forced too many of his staff into isolation.
On top of this, Mr Salt said some panicked workers were resentful that his other venues were remaining open, despite the lack of income if they were closed.
“There’s panic that they’re going to catch [COVID-19], there’s panic that they can’t get tests, there’s panic that they won’t get any [financial] support,” he said.
“There’s just a general anxiety. Two years we’ve been suffering through this, and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better.”
Meanwhile, in Sydney, cafe owner Chris Tate is unsure whether his CBD venue, Pablo & Rusty’s, will be able to reopen as planned after the festive break on January 10.
Mr Tate said several staff members had tested positive or were confirmed close contacts – meaning the cafe would either have to delay its reopening, or be restricted to serving takeaway coffee only.
“We’re very much taking it hour by hour at this point,” he told The New Daily.
Mr Tate said the Omicron wave had put the hospitality industry in “limbo”, as it was grappling with fewer customers without a financial support package from state and federal governments.
Economist Steven Hamilton said that was unfair and “the time is now” for governments to roll out the same support that they offered during the Delta-wave lockdowns in 2021.
Government support essential
“Whether the government imposes restrictions on demand for goods and services, or whether people do it themselves, the effect on businesses and workers is identical, so the economic support should be identical,” Dr Hamilton told The New Daily.
An assistant professor of economics at George Washington University, as well as a visiting fellow at ANU’s Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Dr Hamilton said the supports put in place during last year’s Delta wave were “very well designed”.
They included cash flow boosts for businesses and the COVID-19 Disaster Payment, which, unlike JobKeeper, went directly to stood-down workers.
“We can’t have the view that we’ve spent too much to this point. We need to have the view of what looks forward – and we certainly have plenty of fiscal capacity in order to do that,” Dr Hamilton said.
“So I wouldn’t hesitate to act, regardless of the budgetary impact.”
Neither would Indeed APAC economist Callam Pickering, who like Dr Hamilton has also called for rapid antigen tests to be free and available to all.
Mr Pickering told The New Daily the economy could suffer a severe downturn without additional financial support from the government.
“If the federal government fails to provide support, then households and businesses will be asked to navigate an increasingly unsafe environment without a financial safety net. That’s political suicide in an election year,” Mr Pickering said.
“The federal government should reinstate the disaster payments and business supports that operated successfully throughout the most recent lockdowns.
“We know that these support measures work, because the economy has rebounded strongly every time lockdown was lifted.”
*Leah is not her real name