Once bustling Covid-19 testing clinics now abandoned will be shut down by the NSW Premier after Daily Mail Australia revealed the staggering waste of resources.
“It’s time to close those temporary PCR testing facilities,” Prime Minister Chris Minns said on Tuesday.
But the announcement had yet to get through to clinics on Tuesday afternoon, with a sign outside a Merrylands facility reading: ‘Free COVID testing remains open in 2023’.
Across NSW, 164 COVID-19 PCR testing clinics are still operating, including 52 drive-in clinics and 64 walk-in facilities.
“They are temporary facilities. They are not meant to be permanent,” the prime minister said.
“We drove past it on our way to this press conference in Fairfield and it was empty.”
Prime Minister Chris Minns said ‘it’s time to close those temporary PCR testing facilities’
Staff at the Histopath Pathology drive-through clinic in Sydney’s Merrylands enjoy themselves as they wait for patients to arrive
Bored staff at the Maroubra Clinic, in eastern Sydney, play with their phones, call friends and put their feet up – thankful to have something to do when a patient arrives
Mr Minns said he was determined to ‘ensure that public money is protected’.
He admitted that “a lot of money” is currently being spent on maintaining the test centers, which were largely no longer needed as pandemic-related restrictions were rolled back, he said.
Health Secretary Ryan Park will take steps to close the pop-up clinics in the next 24 hours, although he has not revealed exactly how much tax money has been spent to keep them open.
New NSW treasurer Daniel Mookhey said earlier on Tuesday that the government was reviewing the clinics after Daily Mail Australia revealed fewer than 100 people were using them a day.
Gone are the huge queues and maddening waiting times of two years ago.
Instead, bored employees fiddle with their phones and put their feet up, patiently waiting for someone—anyone—to show up.
A once busy Covid drive-through test clinic in Maroubra is now empty with less than 100 visitors a day
A health worker waits for someone to arrive for testing in Brighton-Le-Sands, Sydney
A patient rolls up for a PCR test and finally gives the employee something to do
At the peak of the outbreak, the specialized drive-through and walk-in PCR test sites had hours of queues – now over 100 people would be a busy day.
Massive white canopies still stand in parking lots as cars trickle through and rarely hold back before a medical worker arrives.
The rest of the time, two or three bored employees look at their phones or call friends – grateful to have something to do when a patient arrives.
Mr Mookhey said he drove past the Maroubra test site, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, and ‘there was nobody there’.
Staff at that clinic told Daily Mail Australia they usually had 50 to 100 people a day during their 7am to 4pm opening hours, with about 95 on Wednesday.
Unlike during the Omicron outbreak, when there was no lockdown but lots of cases, there was no rush before and after work.
“They just come one at a time, or sometimes a few — it’s really random. There are fewer today, maybe 50 so far,” someone said over lunch on Thursday.
The turnout today is a far cry from the height of the pandemic, when there was a long wait
Very few tests came back positive and there were no signs that the clinics would close anytime soon.
“It’s all up to the government, we don’t really know,” they said.
Mr Mookhey said the government is looking into it and advised NSW Health that demand is clearly not as strong as it once was.
“We are now subjecting them to a strict examination, we are getting the health advice,” he said on 2GB radio on Tuesday.
“We need to make sure that every dollar spent on value gets value.”
The treasurer noted that the government had to make cuts to close a budget gap of nearly $80 billion, and that more nurses were needed in hospitals.
The Merrylands clinic is completely empty, with only a trickle of people arriving for testing every now and then
The staff at the Covid test clinics had no idea how long they would continue to operate
At another clinic in south Sydney, four cars arrived within half an hour, with an employee saying it was usually less than 100 a day.
“It’s not many compared to what it used to be,” the staff said, after conducting 40 to 50 tests early Thursday afternoon.
NSW Health stopped counting tests in the weekly updates after Feb. 3, when there were 41,747 combined PCR and rapid tests the previous week.
How many were carried out at test sites is not known and NSW Health did not provide the figure when Daily Mail Australia asked.
Senior ministerial staff are known to be surprised that many of the clinics are still operating more than three years after the start of the pandemic.
The previous government closed many of them in October last year, but the current sites have remained in operation despite declining usage.
At the peak of the outbreak, the specialized drive-through and walk-in PCR test sites lined up for hours. Now they are white elephants
So few people come to this test site in Bankstown, Sydney’s west, that there are no frontline personnel, as they have all retreated inside
4Cyte’s drive-through clinic in North Ryde, Sydney’s north, has nothing but empty seats
A well-placed source in the previous government said there was no longer any reason to keep clinics open and patients to have a PCR test done at a GP or hospital.
“We need the nurses elsewhere and they are costing us a fortune,” they said.
The source said the clinics were only kept open because the coalition feared political backlash from parts of the population ahead of the March 25 elections.
The operation of the clinics is largely outsourced to private companies, but staff spend much of the day idle during a severe nurse shortage.
There is a predicted shortage of 20,000 to 40,000 nursing places by 2025 that the new government hopes to solve with higher wages and a massive recruitment drive.
Response from NSW Health
NSW Health stopped collecting or reporting information on negative Covid-19 PCR test results on February 10, 2023.
Positive Covid-19 results, through both PCR testing and communicated rapid antigen test results, will continue to be reported.
Recent changes in public health regulations for Covid-19 have removed the need for laboratories to provide data on negative PCR test results, in line with other diseases.
Much of the testing has been done through RATs for quite some time, meaning overall Covid-19 testing and positivity rates cannot be determined.
NSW Health recommends PCR tests for people at higher risk of serious illness because they are more accurate and allow for early access to treatments such as antiviral drugs.
People at higher risk should now make a plan with their GP about what to do if they develop symptoms of Covid-19, including which test referral form they need.