Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday that the government would supply free home antigen tests to students and teaching staff, as the Health Ministry announced that more businesses would be permitted to sell the tests in the hope that this would increase availability and lower prices.
The announcements came as officials debated placing price caps on at-home tests to clamp down on price gouging, with demand outstripping supply and concerns that a shift to at-home testing would put strain on Israelis unable to afford the rapid tests.
Israel over the weekend began reserving free PCR tests for only certain cases, urging vaccinated individuals to use rapid antigen tests from home to ease overcrowding at testing sites. However, the shift led to a run on already short supplies of home tests.
Bennett told his cabinet that free tests would begin going out to students and staff in kindergartens and schools in the coming days.
“Each child and staff member will receive three testing kits. We took care to deliver stocks to schools in a timely manner and these kits are now being used to alleviate the burden on parents,” Bennett said at the start of the cabinet meeting.
Bennett also said that one and a half million tests were being distributed to elder care homes across the country.
“We make sure that we put an envelope of protection, hermetically sealed as much as possible, on the nursing homes and to the elderly with the aim of protecting the most vulnerable who can develop serious illness and require hospitalization,” the prime minister said.
The premier said he also expected the price of home tests to fall with the imminent arrival of millions more tests in the country.
“We are in contact with the drugstore chains to lower the prices of the tests. Prices will in any case drop in the near future, because the market will be flooded with the millions of testing kits that will arrive in Israel,” he said.
Shortly after Bennett’s announcement, the Health Ministry said that it would be permitting supermarkets and food stores to sell antigen tests, breaking the monopoly held by drugstores on their sale.
The Health Ministry said in a statement that the temporary order would allow businesses with a license to sell food and beverages (with the exception of butchers) to also sell home antigen tests provided that they can store them separately from all other produce and under proper conditions. The temporary order will expire on April 15.
“We are opening up the market, and we will allow the sale of home antigen tests by the retail chains, in addition to pharmacies. This will make the tests accessible and significantly reduce the price for the public,” Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said in a statement.
Virus czar Salman Zarka said earlier Sunday that officials were looking into ways to control prices on home COVID-19 tests.
“We have contacted the Finance Ministry regarding the control of the prices of antigen tests to make sure that the pricing is reasonable,” Zarka told the Kan public broadcaster.
Zarka also said the supply of antigen testing carried out by official institutions was set to increase, particularly in outlying areas where there were fewer testing stations.
“We are trying to bring in more companies to make the tests more accessible and next week the deployment in the country’s periphery will increase,” Zarka said.
While PCR tests were conducted for free, consumers are asked to pay anywhere from NIS 35 ($11) to over NIS 100 ($32) for home tests sold by private companies — a significant cost, especially for larger families.
The prices have led to concerns that home testing will only be accessible to those who are wealthier.
The announcements followed pressure from the Labor party, which said in a statement Sunday morning that it was unacceptable for the government to call on people to use home tests without subsidizing the cost.
“The government cannot require citizens to comply with the testing framework when they have to carry the burden of the expense,” the party said in a statement. “We call on the government to subsidize [them] and work to reduce the cost of the tests, as well as for a return to the system of PCR tests carried out by the Israel Defense Forces, as in previous waves.”
Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chair Gilad Kariv, also from Labor, said Sunday that the government should consider implementing an order for price controls on home antigen tests.
“It is the duty of the government to make sure that there is no pricing frenzy,” he said.
However, Religious Zionism’s Simcha Rothman, an opposition lawmaker, objected, saying the market would take care of itself and prices would come down.
“Prices must not be monitored. They wanted to monitor prices for masks [at the start of the pandemic, and it was good that they did not do that — in fact the prices went down a lot,” Rothman said.
New testing guidelines came into effect last week whereby anyone vaccinated and under the age of 60 must take a rapid antigen test after exposure to a COVID-19 carrier and stay at home until they get back a negative result. They can take the test at home or at an official testing center.
The unvaccinated under the age of 60 must also undergo a rapid antigen test, although it must be carried out at an official testing center and they are still required to isolate for seven days if negative.
Zarka also noted that with infections so widespread in Israel, those who are at-risk of serious disease as a result of coronavirus infection should exercise caution and not rely on the Green Pass vaccine passport to keep them safe.
“Currently, the effectiveness of the Green Pass has decreased, but vaccination is still a very significant component [against the virus],” Zarka said. “It is important that a high-risk population does not rely on the Green Pass.”
Meanwhile, as Israel sees record morbidity levels amid the Omicron-fueled infection wave, new coronavirus guidelines for Israeli schools came into force Sunday, with vaccination rates no longer a factor in whether classes can meet in-person.
Health and education officials agreed last week to junk the “traffic light” plan under which the vaccination rate of each class determined if students would attend school in person or remotely. The move will effectively ease schools’ ability to hold in-person classes, allowing all schools and daycare centers to return to full activity, so long as children don’t test positive, in which case the usual isolation rules apply.