Time is running out – for those wanting free RAT tests – with the scheme due to end next month.

Every household has been eligible to pick up boxes from selected pharmacies and medical centres, listed on Healthpoint, for the past 18 months.

Now there is growing concern people won’t be able to afford RATs and won’t test for Covid.

Te Whatu Ora has distributed 125 million tests for free collection.

Helen James – who recently recovered from Covid – is among those who have benefited.

“I sent my husband off to the pharmacy to get free RATs… and they gave us free RATs for the whole family. It just meant that we could do it – otherwise I wouldn’t have got the tests, because we are paying for other things.”

Last week 8000 new Covid cases were reported, showing the fifth wave had not yet peaked.

But it’s suspected many cases are going unreported – a problem predicted to worsen when people have to pay to test.

Brooke McKay – owner of Queen St Pharmacy in Upper Hutt – has been offering free collections.

She told 1News: “When they (RAT tests) are no longer free – people won’t test and collect them as they are now.”

Experts are now urging the health ministry Te Whatu Ora to extend funding.

University of Canterbury epidemiologist Associate Professor Arindam Basu said: “Suppose I have got an infection and I do not have the test kit and I cannot either afford it, or do not go, because I know that it’s not free anymore – I remain hidden. I start infecting other people.”

University of Otago immunologist Associate Professor Dianne Sika-Paotonu was also concerned RAT test costs would lead to: “People who are unwell, turning up to work or school, spreading Covid around them, making other people sick, impacting staffing levels, affecting productivity and ultimately costing time and money.”

Te Whatu Ora says free RAT collection sites remain open until February 29, and options for future access to RATs are being considered.

“We expect to provide an update to the public in the near future,” a statement said on Friday.

“Approximately 182 million RATs have been purchased to support the public health response to COVID-19 at a cost of $1.1 billion… As of 31 December 2023, approximately 20 million [of those] RATs have expired.”

Wastewater sampling is helping map out infections, but Sika-Paotonu said this could not replace instant swab results.

“It is still really important for us as individuals to know whether they have Covid or not so that we can do the right thing.”