There are several ways to test whether a person may have or be carrying the COVID-19 coronavirus. There are also tests to see whether or not you have had Coronavirus in the past.
Here we explain the differences between the various methods, and outline where to buy or apply for each kind of COVID test:
Rapid Lateral Flow Covid Test Kits
Around 1 in 3 individuals with COVID-19 show no symptoms of the virus but can still pass it on to others, whose response to the virus may be more acute.
Lateral flow tests will accurately detect COVID-19 even if no symptoms are present. They can be used out in the community by trained volunteers, and give accurate, easily interpreted results in 15 to 30 minutes so that infected persons can be immediately isolated to prevent further transmission.
Lateral flow technology is commonly used in pregnancy tests. In the COVID test, the kit detects the presence of specific proteins (antigens) in a swab if the individual has COVID-19.
The swab takes samples from the back of the throat and the nostrils and is dipped into an extraction solution before being dripped onto an indicator pad.
A test may reveal a positive, negative or void result. If the result is positive, you must self-isolate immediately in accordance with Government guidelines.
A negative result simply means that no COVID-19 was detected at the time of testing. You can still have coronavirus and must continue to take anti-transmission measures such as regular handwashing, wearing PPE and maintaining social distancing.
If you get a void result, you will be asked to take another test.
To find out where your nearest rapid lateral test site is, visit https://www.gov.uk/find-covid-19-lateral-flow-test-site. Please note: if you are showing symptoms of COVID-19 do not attend a rapid lateral test site.
As a key UK supplier of COVID-related PPE and test kits, Encompass offer three lateral flow test kit options:
- Swiss Point of Care COVID Rapid Test Kits are inexpensive but offer a high degree of accuracy. They are also a nasal swab method that doesn’t require insertion to the back of the throat, making them a popular choice for testing young children, or adults with a strong gag reflex.
- Hughes Acon Rapid Antigen COVID Test Kits also only require nasal swabbing, and with the added benefit of pre-filled tubes of buffer fluid they ensure fast, convenient testing.
- Roche SARS-COV-2 Rapid Antigen Test Kits are also offered by Encompass due to high demand for this premium-brand nasopharyngeal test method.
If you are showing symptoms of COVID-19 you may be asked to take a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test. This also takes swab samples from the throat and nose, but the samples are analysed in a lab for the presence of the virus’ genetic information, or RNA (ribonucleic acid).
As with lateral flow testing, PCR tests can only confirm the presence of COVID-19 at the time the swab was taken. They cannot detect whether you have previously had the virus, and you should continue to take anti-transmission precautions even if you have a negative result.
Government Lab Tests
The UK Government is offering PCR testing to individuals who are showing at least one of the three main symptoms:
- high temperature
- new, continuous cough
- loss or change of sense of smell or taste
According to Government guidelines, you may also use this service if:
- you’ve been asked to get a test by a local council
- you’re taking part in a government pilot project
- you’ve been asked to get a test to confirm a positive result
- you’ve received an unclear result and were told to get a second test
- you need to get a test for someone you live with who has symptoms
- you’re in the National Tactical Response Group
- you’re to be admitted to hospital (the test will be arranged by the hospital)
Private Lab Tests
The UK Government has created a scheme called Test to Release for international travel, which allows persons to reduce their quarantine period on return to the UK. If you want to use this scheme, you will need to pay a non-NHS provider to carry out the lab test for you.
It’s important that you use a service that meets the requirements for Test to Release and the Government has published a list of providers on its website.
Private testing is also an option for companies who want or need to return to work; for example, they might be in a key supply sector, or they might need to complete a contract on time to avoid financial penalties.
Mass testing of the workforce, combined with thorough anti-transmission measures, can help to restore employees’ confidence, but once again it offers no guarantee that any employee might be subsequently exposed to and acquire the virus.
For individuals wanting personal peace of mind, private PCR home test kits are also offered online by pharmacies such as Boots.
Antibody testing can detect from a blood sample whether you’ve previously had COVID-19 and subsequently built an immunity to it. It cannot tell whether you are protected from coronavirus or are unable to transmit it to someone else.
Antibody tests are available as home test kits, a finger prick test offered by pharmacies or a full blood sample test at a health centre or GP practice.
Government Antibody Home Test Kits
The UK Government is offering antibody test kits for home use, although availability depends on where you live and what you do for a job. In all regions, you must be aged 18 or over.
- England – working in paid (i.e. not voluntary) adult social care
- Wales – working in paid domiciliary care (caring for people in their homes)
- Scotland – working in education (teaching or non-teaching staff) or based in an early years, primary, secondary or additional learning support school setting
- Northern Ireland – any work in a care home, paid work in primary care (GP, pharmacist, community nurse, dental nurse or optician) or domiciliary care
However, not all applicants in Northern Ireland will receive a test.
The test kit will be sent to you in the post with instructions on how to use it and an address to return it to. Participation in this Government scheme will also help the NHS and scientists learn more about the spread of the virus.
In-Pharmacy Antibody Finger Prick Rapid Testing
On 1st February 2021 Public Health England (PHE) announced a U-turn on its guidance against Covid testing in community pharmacies that led to the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) banning the sale of sale of Covid-19 antibody tests.
As this is a recent development following an effectual ban on pharmacy-based testing, none of the main pharmaceutical chains are advertising the in-pharmacy service on their websites, so it would be worth calling your local pharmacy to see if they offer this service.
Home Use Antibody Finger Prick Rapid Test Kits
Test kits for home use are also available on private sale from some online pharmacies, including
Private Healthcare Antibody Blood Sample Testing
During the PHE/GPhC ban this was the only COVID antibody test available outside of the Government programme but now this ban has been lifted we anticipate a resurgence in the numbers of home and in-pharmacy testing.