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A man displays his COVID-19 rapid test kit after receiving it at a pharmacy in Montreal on Dec. 20, 2021. Ontario has announced plans to distribute millions of free rapid-antigen tests.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Walmart Canada have reversed course after an uproar over the big-box chain’s initial plan to require a minimum $35 online order for customers to receive one of the government’s “free” rapid COVID-19 tests, which the province pledged to distribute via pharmacies and grocery stores.

“Free means free. We’re providing #RapidTests free of charge and all participating partners are expected to honour that – no minimums or mandatory purchase,” Mr. Ford said in a late afternoon Twitter post on Wednesday. “If they don’t, we’ll give them to retailers or pharmacies that will.”

In the morning, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott announced the government’s plans to distribute millions of free rapid-antigen tests. The Opposition NDP then raised the issue of Walmart’s policy in a press release.

Before Mr. Ford’s tweet, Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for Ms. Elliott, told The Globe and Mail when questioned about the $35 minimum order that retailers “have the ability to determine how tests are distributed in order to best serve the community, including through appointment bookings, at checkout or through online orders.”

In an e-mail to The Globe after Mr. Ford’s reversal, Walmart Canada’s director of corporate affairs, Adam Grachnik, said the company had heard the concerns raised over its plan and was changing course.

“Our intention of distributing the kits through our online grocery pickup service was to avoid long lines in our stores and to offer them to our customers in a safe, efficient and equitable manner,” Mr. Grachnik said. “However, we’ve heard the concerns raised today and will make the kits available in our stores for free.”

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Ms. Elliott had announced the rapid-test plans using a Kitchener, Ont., Walmart as a backdrop. However, neither she nor Shelley Kiroff, Walmart Canada’s senior vice-president of health and wellness, who was present at the event, mentioned that Ontarians would need to make a minimum online order of $35 to acquire a test. The requirement also never came up in a 40-minute technical briefing for reporters.

Walmart’s website on Wednesday appeared to treat the tests, paid for by taxpayers, as a promotion. “For a limited time,” the site reads. “While quantities last.”

The NDP demanded a government order banning the practice.

“This is a tool in the fight against COVID-19,” NDP deputy leader Sara Singh said. “Not a prize in the bottom of the cereal box, and not a promotional item to help multibillion-dollar big-box empires draw more customers in.”

Ontario plans to distribute 5.5 million rapid antigen tests a week, or 1.1 million test kits containing five tests each, through 2,300 retail locations, starting Wednesday. They are to be limited to one per household per retail visit. The plan is currently set to last at least eight weeks, through February and March. The government also said that in most of the province, the test kits will be available in multiple retailers and pharmacies, as well as through social service agencies, community centres, places of worship and food banks in “vulnerable communities.”

Aisha Dhalla, a spokesperson for grocery retailer Longo’s, confirmed that its test kits would be given out through online grocery orders, which have a $50 minimum. But she also said customers could also receive a free test kit in person at the chain’s stores, with no purchase required.

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The government’s rapid-test announcement was also marred by confusion over how the tests should be used. Ms. Elliott said Ontarians could use the tests as an “additional tool” to “confidently do the things they love, like visiting family, or dining out at their favourite local restaurant.”

But a slide deck distributed to reporters outlining the plans before her press conference says the tests are intended for those with symptoms and “generally not recommended” for use by asymptomatic people with no known exposure before a social event. Asked about the contradiction, Ms. Elliott responded that the tests should only be used before visiting vulnerable or immunocompromised people, not “because you want to go to a party.”

The Ford government previously faced criticism for cutting off access to its lab-confirmed polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, reserving them for people at highest risk, such as long-term care residents and health workers, as the Omicron wave threatened to overwhelm the system. It has also faced flak for not making rapid tests more widely available. While it has distributed millions through schools, its move to hand them out at liquor stores in December resulted in long lines and shortages. Opposition politicians and small business groups also criticized the government earlier in the pandemic for favouring big-box retailers, allowing them to remain open when smaller non-essential retailers were forced to close.

On Wednesday, Ms. Elliott also announced that the province will phase-in the resumption of all non-emergency surgeries “in the coming days” as the situation in its hospitals continues to improve. While the COVID-19 Science Table warned this week of a sustained burden on hospitals through March, Ms. Elliott said the province was “currently tracking towards the best case projections.”

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