When the coronavirus pandemic first took hold, trying to get a COVID test was like trying to get Glastonbury tickets. Hard to come by is an understatement. But now, well over a year on, a key part of the government's strategy to get the country back on its feet is regular testing - even for people who are asymptomatic.
That's why anyone can now access free rapid COVID tests (also known as lateral flow tests) to take from the comfort of their very own home. And when we say rapid, we mean rapid; the results come back in half an hour.
In England, we're currently in phase two of the four-stage 'roadmap' out of lockdown, which means we can socialise in groups of six outside. But as the government allows us to gradually mix more, they want to ensure we're testing ourselves regularly to ensure we're not inadvertently passing on the virus.
So how do you go about getting access to a free box of these lateral flow tests? It's actually really straight forward. You can either:
Order free tests to be sent to your home
Collect a free box of seven tests from a local pharmacy
Visit a nearby lateral flow testing site, and have somebody oversee you taking the swab
The government is keen for everyone to do two rapid flow tests per week, because statistics show that around 1 in 3 people with COVID-19 don't actually show any symptoms. If you test regularly, you'll have peace of mind that you're not unknowingly spreading the virus to loved ones or strangers.
How do I order free lateral flow tests to be sent to me?
If you'd like rapid flow tests to be delivered to your home, visit this government webpage. It will take you through a series of questions to ensure you don't currently have symptoms of COVID (lateral flow tests are designed for people who don't have symptoms, remember), and to find out where in the UK you live. Once you have input your personal details, your tests will then be sent out and you will receive them through your letterbox within a couple of days.
Where can I pick up free rapid flow tests?
If you want to collect a box of seven lateral flow tests for you and for any other members of your family, you can visit this NHS webpage and input your postcode. From there, it will draw up a list of all the pharmacies nearby that are currently stocking rapid flow tests, where you will be able to go and pick them up for no cost. This search function also lists local lateral flow testing sites you can visit (more on that below).
How can I find a nearly lateral flow testing site?
If you would prefer to go to a lateral flow testing site, as opposed to doing the test yourself at home, then follow the same steps as above, visiting this webpage. It's worth noting, however, that lateral flow testing sites are only intended for people without symptoms; if you're displaying COVID-19 symptoms then you should request a PCR test here.
But back to the rapid flow testing. Once you have input your postcode and a map shows up, you can then filter the results to show 'test site requiring booking' or 'test site not requiring booking' depending on which you would prefer. If you select a test site that requires booking, you'll obviously have to book in for an appointment before turning up (stating the obvious here, but you never know).
What happens in a lateral flow test?
Rapid flow tests are largely the same as the PCR COVID test you'd take if you went to a public testing site. The only difference you'll notice is how long it takes to get your results back, because a PCR test gets sent to a lab for analysis whereas lateral flow tests do not - the results show up on the testing device almost immediately.
Lateral flow tests require you to rub a long cotton bud (a swab) over your tonsils (or where they would have been) and inside your nose. The swab is then placed into some liquid, which is squeezed in droplets onto the test device. It then works a bit like a pregnancy test, showing up a result using lines.
After 30 minutes, once your result shows up, you then follow the instructions in the booklet about how to declare your result (positive or negative) to the NHS, which is tracking all this data. It's important to log negative results as well as positive results.
What should I do if I test positive for a rapid flow test?
If you test positive on a lateral flow test, you will need to declare your positive test to the NHS. You will then be asked to take a PCR test (a COVID test that's analysed in a lab) to confirm you have the virus. You and anyone you live with will need to self-isolate from the moment you test positive on a lateral flow test.
Are lateral flow tests reliable?
Rapid flow tests determine their results within a small testing device, and not in a lab environment, which means they are perceived as being less accurate. However, the government recently reassured us that research suggests lateral flow tests have a specificity of at least 99.9%. In real terms, this means that there will be fewer than one false positive in every 1,000 lateral flow tests carried out (ie, it's exceptionally unlikely that the device will tell you you've got coronavirus when, in fact, you haven't).
Lateral flow tests are believed to be particularly sensitive to 'viral load' which is basically how much of the virus you carry if you catch it. "Lateral flow devices are effective at finding people with high viral loads who are most infectious and most likely to transmit the virus to others," explains Dr Susan Hopkins, COVID-19 Strategic Response Director to Public Health England and Chief Medical Adviser to NHS Test and Trace.
What we can take from this is that lateral flow tests are significantly more likely to flag a positive result for someone who is very infectious. This is the most important thing, because it will prevent a person with a high viral load (who may not be displaying any symptoms) from unknowingly going out and about, and spreading COVID to the wider public.
The information in this story is accurate as of the publication date. While we are attempting to keep our content as up-to-date as possible, the situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic continues to develop rapidly, so it's possible that some information and recommendations may have changed since publishing. For any concerns and latest advice, visit the World Health Organisation. If you're in the UK, the National Health Service can also provide useful information and support, while US users can contact the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
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