If you think you have symptoms of COVID and are living in the UK, you can apply online for a free coronavirus PCR swab test, which will be able to tell you whether you are currently suffering from COVID-19 or not.
You can also access twice-weekly lateral flow tests through your employer if you live in England – although the test results from these are not felt to be as accurate.
If you are going on holiday, however, you are not eligible for a free COVID home test kit and instead will have to purchase a gold standard Fit to Fly Test from Fit2FlyTest.
We take a closer look at what you need to know if you want to get tested, including the difference between the types of coronavirus test, what’s available and what the limitations of the currently available tests are.
Getting a test if you think you have COVID
The diagnostic PCR swab test, taken using a swab from inside the mouth and/or nose, is the test that is most commonly used by the NHS as it indicates most reliably whether a person is currently infected with the COVID virus or not.
The test involves swabbing the back of your throat and the inside of your nose using a long cotton bud which you have to do yourself. It can be quite unpleasant as it needs to go quite deep.
At the moment, anyone with symptoms of coronavirus can get a free test as part of the UK’s Track and Trace programme – although this does not apply if you want to use the test to prove you are eligible to go on holiday.
You request the PCR test online and it can either be completed at a drive-through testing centre, at a mobile testing unit, or at home via a test kit.
This type of test tends to take longer to process as the samples need to be analysed in a lab.
The UK Government is urging people to request a test as soon as they develop symptoms, with their guidance stating that testing must be done within the first five days of symptoms appearing. If your test needs to be posted, then you also need to allow time for it to arrive within that time as well.
Rapid Coronavirus Tests
These tests, which are also known as lateral flow tests (LFT), have a quicker turnaround time than PCR tests – as the name suggests.
They are also completed using a nasal or throat swab, in a similar way to the PCR test, but the results are usually available within around 30 minutes.
These tests are currently being used to mass test many people, such as employees and secondary school children, with some scientists saying they have an important role to play in the prevention of the spread of Coronavirus. However, other scientists are concerned that they could contribute to a false sense of security due to the ongoing debate as to how well they can pick up asymptomatic infections when performed at home.
Understanding your COVID Home Test results
The current NHS advice is that you do not need to isolate if you receive a negative result from your COVID test – as long as everyone else in your household/support bubble also tests negative and if NHS Test and trace have not told you to isolate.
Some doctors have raised concerns about so-called ‘false negatives’ where your test comes back as negative but you do actually have the virus, as this will lead to possible false reassurance. It is not known, however, what the rate of false negatives is and your test result will not be presented to you with any information about what may affect the result or its accuracy.
The current Government advice is to continue to isolate yourself if you are feeling unwell, even if you do receive a negative test result, so if you are unsure then it is best to stay home.
Sometimes the NHS tests may come back saying the test result is “unclear” but without any information as to why this might be and how to avoid getting a similar result the next time you take a test.
If you receive an “unclear” result but you have symptoms of Coronavirus then current guidance states that you must self-isolate for ten days from the onset of symptoms. If you don’t have any symptoms then you don’t need to self isolate.
If your test results come back positive then you must self-isolate for 10 days from when your symptoms started or ten days from getting your result back if you are asymptomatic.
Everyone else in your household/support bubble must also self-isolate for 10 days with you as well.