Multiple rapid test suppliers have backed down on claims that the federal government had “seized”, “requisitioned” or even “stolen” shipments destined for local retailers and other businesses.
On Friday, Health Minister Greg Hunt called the claims a “scam” – a day after branding the suppliers liars.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday that repeated claims by many of the suppliers about unfulfilled orders were “just not true”.
Several investigations are underway, including one by the federal police.
The sensational backdown came after one company, Werko Australia, emailed customers that its shipments had been “prioritised to the government’s national stockpile and were pulled from under our nose” on January 19.
On Friday, chief operating officer Malki Hochhauser exclusively told The New Daily that this was wrong.
“In regards to the government, that’s not a hard fact from my end,” Ms Hochhauser said.
The office supply executive said she wrote the email based on rumours swirling in the industry – plus a mysterious phone call from an unnamed supplier – which the government has repeatedly denied.
“I guess I didn’t realise that they would hone in on an email that I sent,” Ms Hochhauser said.
“We’ve gone from micro to macro and in a matter of minutes – and I didn’t realise that that email would reach over 100,000 customers.”
She later added: “We didn’t realise we’d cause a sh-t storm.”
Amid a huge backlog of unfulfilled orders, Werko now says it has chartered four flights to import rapid tests for delivery in early February.
Ms Hochhauser said this would ensure existing customers got what they needed.
They included equine vet Stacy McGregor, who ordered almost $500 of rapid antigen tests from Werko on January 3 after one of her employees – who also works at a roadhouse – contracted COVID-19.
Her clinic is in the Victorian town of Euroa, where the nearest PCR clinic is a 40-minute drive away.
Some of Dr McGregor’s staff have serious chronic illnesses but can’t afford to stay home.
The rapid tests still haven’t arrived.
“I’m disappointed all round,” she told TND.
“But the reason that those companies are short of supplies is because there was no prior preparation or planning for this political decision to open up.”
Nevertheless, Ms McGregor was glad the confusion around the claims of seized orders had been resolved and hoped an email to customers would soon follow.
Queensland Rail workers go without
Queensland Rail ordered 34,000 rapid tests for essential workers from two companies: Winc Australia and Office National.
In January, Winc Australia claimed that the federal government had “commandeered” one order under its “emergency stock powers”.
The other company, Office National, simply connects businesses with a network of smaller independent office suppliers.
The main supplier of rapid tests in this network is a small Brisbane company called General Stationery.
However, when the shipment of rapid antigen tests was delayed, the announcement was made by a different company: Celsus International.
According to the email, the shipment of 20,000 tests was “no longer available” because “the sponsor of the product has decided that (even though these were fully paid for) they will now only be dealing with the federal government”.
General Stationery has the same office address as Celsus International.
General Stationery disconnected its landline on Friday morning.
In an unsigned email to TND from the company’s customer service department on Tuesday, one worker said: “I think it will be pretty hard to get the suppliers/sponsors to admit to what has happened.”
Celsus International is listed by the TGA as a sponsor on other pandemic-related pharmaceutical goods.
Similar stories across the industry
Sydney-based HiCraft also told customers that the government had supposedly “sequestered” its shipments of rapid antigen tests.
The company has since withdrawn those claims.
“While HiCraft was initially informed by one supplier that delays were caused by government purchases, this was subsequently found to be incorrect,” a spokesperson told TND.
“Our experience with various government departments has shown a willingness to work with us to ensure a manageable flow of product over the coming weeks and months, as they seek to limit the unsuitable demand for PCR tests.”
But not all suppliers have been upfront, leaving some retailers disappointed.
Connect4 Solutions, based out of Perth, emailed customers to say the federal government “placed a mandate order” on their shipment.
The company refused to comment on the matter, or provide any evidence for this claim.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt referred the issue to the ACCC for investigation on Thursday.
“The ACCC is aware of a number of reports that business customers are being given various explanations by their suppliers about why orders for rapid antigen tests cannot be delivered as promised,” a spokesperson told TND.
“The ACCC is investigating some of these claims.”
On Friday, Mr Hunt again slapped down claims rapid tests were being diverted from the Queensland government or from businesses.
“Everybody knew that the original claim by the Queensland government was false,” he told ABC radio on Friday.
“It’s extraordinary that a minister in any government would fall for a scam like that. Either they have not done the work to verify that it is false, or it is deliberately made as a statement.”
Mr Hunt said many businesses making the requisitioning claims had overpromised on supply.
“I understand Queensland was one of the very last to place their orders [for rapid tests], and they need to be careful about making sure they’re dealing with reputable suppliers,” he said.
“I am astonished that the Queensland government would peddle a fake, a forgery, a lie, a fix. It’s extraordinary.”