Since 16 March the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been telling countries with Covid-19 to “test, test, test” for the virus. As well as implementing strict social distancing measures and lockdown policies, experts have said a system of testing and tracking those with the virus is an essential component to recovery.
Testing has been part of the UK’s “five-pillar strategy” to fight the coronavirus since March but it has frequently faced criticism over continued hurdles and problems.
In late March when the government attempted to ramp up supplies of tests, it bought unusable ones; 3.5 million antibody tests turned out to be ineffective and unusable, a situation health secretary Matt Hancock described as “frustrating”.
A month later NHS healthcare leaders were warned there was still no “immediate prospect” of mass NHS staff testing and even those who were tested faced the prospect of an incorrect test as care minister Helen Whately confirmed they “weren’t effective enough” to be certain.
On 1 May the government hit its target of 100,000 daily tests (a number Germany had been hitting since the start of April) and even this was subject to criticism as the government faced accusations it had “moved the goalposts” by including stats for as-yet incomplete home tests.
On 3 August, one of the biggest advances in testing so far was announced, with the government saying it will roll out 90-minute tests for both Covid-19 and flu across hospitals, care homes and laboratories.
But on 8 September, test and trace director Sarah Jane Marsh apologised to the many people still unable to get a test saying the laboratories were “overcrowded”. And a day later, health secretary Matt Hancock said that there had been a “sharp rise” in the number of people “who don’t have a good reason” coming forward for a test.
So who is eligible for a test and what can you expect to happen if you get one?
Who can get a test?
Since 18 May everyone over the age of five in the UK with symptoms of coronavirus (a fever, persistent new cough, loss of taste and/or smell) can now be tested for the virus.
Speaking in parliament on the same day the government revised the official coronavirus symptoms list to include loss of taste or smell, Mr Hancock said the government was “expanding eligibility for testing further than ever before”.
Earlier on Monday morning Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced anyone in Scotland over the age of five with symptoms could now put themselves forward for a test.
This changed the testing policy in England (the devolved nations had different policies), which only allowed essential workers and those over the age of 65 with symptoms to be tested.
Until 18 May the only people who could apply for a test were: NHS staff, prison and probation workers, court workers, religious staff, charity workers delivering frontline services, those working with the deceased, journalists, police, fire and rescue workers, the British Transport Police, those working in transport, education and childcare, social workers, those involved in critical food production or distribution and essential staff working in oil, gas, electricity or water services.
Others who were eligible included over 65s with symptoms or those who had symptoms and could not work from home (for example, those working in construction or on a building site). Testing was also offered to hospital patients and staff working directly with them.
For those who did not qualify for a test and had symptoms of coronavirus they were advised to stay at home and self-isolate for a period of 14 days. And to call 111 if symptoms got worse or did not go away after a week.
And even those who did qualify for a test would not necessarily get a test straight away. A notice on the government testing website says: “You might not get a test if you apply – it depends how many tests are available in your area. Frontline essential workers will be given priority.” (It is yet to be updated to reflect whether new eligibility criteria will mean everyone who applies gets a test).
How do I book for a test?
On the government website it says you need to book a test within five days of your symptoms first developing in order for it to be effective. The ideal time is within three days of symptoms first showing.
For people in England there are several choices for testing: you can either go to a regional drive-through centre, where someone will administer the test for you. In order to go to a regional centre, the government says you or someone you live with must have a car to use.
Alternatively you can request an at-home test kit, when the tools will be delivered to your door and you can administer the test yourself in the privacy of your home. You will be asked to complete an identity check to get the test sent out.
It is worth noting that the daily allocation of home-testing kits is limited – when The Independent checked on Monday there were “none available”.
There are also ‘satellite’ testing sites and mobile testing sites which are not permanent fixtures and move around the country depending on where they are needed most for local outbreaks.
Tests can also be self-referred where you fill in the details yourself, or your employer can apply on your behalf. If your employer applies for you, you will receive a text message with a unique invitation code to book your appointment.
Both these booking routes are available for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. For people in Wales – there is a different, and separate, booking system for accessing tests.
What happens in the test?
The coronavirus test is not the same as the antibody test.
The coronavirus test is an antigen test and tests if you currently have Covid-19 whereas the antibody test is to establish whether you have previously had the virus.
The coronavirus test involves taking a swab of the nose and back of the throat – this can be done by the person themselves or by someone else. The test is done using a long cotton bud.
The new test is reportedly a DNA test which uses a saliva swab from inside your mouth. One of the new tests is made by DnaNudge and another is called LamPORE, and is made by Oxford Nanopore. It can analyse saliva as well as nose swab samples.
An antibody test requires a sample of blood rather than a swab from the throat: PHE have now approved two antibody tests, the Roche and the Abbott. But these have not yet been made accessible to the public as UK officials are still in talks with the Swiss manufacturers about a planned roll out.
If you are having the coronavirus swab test done at a drive-through service you need to all arrive in the same vehicle and sit next to a window in the vehicle.
You are not allowed to ride a motorbike to a drive-through test site.
If you have booked an at-home test, you can watch this official tutorial to show you how to administer the test to yourself.
How do I get my results?
You will receive your test results by text message. The government says most people will receive a response within 48 hours but it can take up to five days.
While you wait for your results you (and anyone you live with) must continue to self-isolate.
If your test turns out to be negative you can safely return to work as long as you are well enough, have not had a high temperature for 48 hours and anyone you live with also tests negative for Covid-19.