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Covid: How do I get a lateral flow or PCR test?

By Rachel Schraer
Health reporter

image sourceGetty Images

More people are being offered free rapid coronavirus tests.

The UK government says regular testing could be an important tool for easing restrictions.

Why is testing being increased?

It’s hoped the rapid tests – known as lateral flow tests – can help stop individual cases from becoming outbreaks.

About one in three people have coronavirus without any symptoms.

How do I get a lateral flow test?

Anyone without symptoms in England can get free tests from testing sites, pharmacies or through the post (in packs of seven).

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Regular lateral flow testing is already used for frontline NHS, care home and school staff – plus for secondary school pupils and in some workplaces.

In addition, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said anyone visiting island communities from the mainland should take two lateral flow tests – the first three days before travel, and the second on the day of departure.

The gap between the first test and travel date will allow time to confirm any positive result with a PCR test.

How does the lateral flow test work?

It involves swabbing your nose and/or throat, then dipping the swab in a fluid.

This is then dropped onto a plastic device – a bit like a pregnancy test.

A line appears on a paper strip to show the test has worked. A second line appears if you have the virus.

What if I test positive and need a PCR test?

You should get a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test to confirm the result.

This can be booked online, or by phone – 119 in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, or 0300 303 2713 in Scotland.

PCR test swabs are sent to a lab for analysis, with the result in 24-48 hours.

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image captionLateral flow test kit of parts

How reliable are lateral flow tests?

Lateral flow tests are less sensitive than PCR tests, and can miss more cases, especially in people with mild infections.

However the government says that for every 1,000 lateral flow tests carried out, there was less than one false positive result.

False positives are equally rare for PCR tests.

But they can still cause problems. If lots of people get tested when there is very little virus in circulation, you might get more false positives than true positives, which can distort infection rates.

What about mass testing programmes?

Extra Covid tests are taking place in specific areas where new variants of coronavirus have been found.

People without symptoms who live or work in the relevant local authority area, postcode or even street are asked to take a PCR test. The idea is to identify new forms of Covid at the very earliest stage, and stop them spreading.

Surge testing is currently taking place in a number of areas where the India variant has been found, including Bolton, Blackburn and Bedford.

What if I have Covid symptoms?

  • You have Covid symptoms – a new continuous cough, high temperature, or change in sense of taste or smell
  • You test positive for Covid-19
  • You live with someone who has tested positive
  • You live with someone who has Covid symptoms (unless they have a negative test)
  • You arrive in the UK from a country other than the Republic of Ireland
  • You are contacted by NHS Test and Trace to say you have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive

What do I need to know about the coronavirus?

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