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With Christmas bubbles still going ahead in the UK, some will be considering taking a Covid-19 test before seeing loved ones over the festive break.
But there are a few things to bear in mind before you do. The NHS offers Covid-19 testing, however it’s only intended for those with symptoms. Demand for tests is high right now, so if you’re planning on taking one as a precautionary check that it’s safe to see your family over Christmas, consider the ethics.
As Dr James Gill, a GP locum, explains: “Whilst having a test before a Christmas meet-up is a really sensible idea, consider where you feel it is right and fair to source your test for your social engagement.”
You can only get a free NHS test if at least one of the following applies:
you have a high temperature
you have a new, continuous cough
you’ve lost your sense of smell or taste or it’s changed
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
Of course, if you do have Covid-19 symptoms ahead of Christmas, you should get tested as soon as possible and self-isolate until you get your results back.
If you’re going into hospital for surgery or a procedure, you may need to get tested, too. You can also get an NHS test for someone you live with if they have symptoms of Covid.
Testing sites will be open over Christmas. However they will have reduced opening hours. People in all the devolved nations can access a Covid-19 test at either physical testing sites or via a home testing kit.
Getting tested before visiting a care home
Rapid (lateral flow) tests are being issued to Care Quality Commission registered care homes for the purpose of testing visitors.
The care homes will receive these tests during December and should have sufficient quantities to test up to two visitors per resident, twice a week by Christmas, according to the UK government.
These tests use a throat and nose swab, with results available in around 15 minutes. It’s worth noting that while rapid testing can reduce the risks around visiting, it does not completely remove the risk of infection.
Pilot data from Liverpool, which trialled the lateral flow tests on a city-wide basis, revealed they detected just 48.89% of Covid-19 infections in asymptomatic people when compared with a PCR swab test (that is sent off to a lab for results).
If you’re planning on visiting a care home before Christmas, you should speak to them in advance about your visit and whether they’ll provide testing.
If you haven’t got symptoms, you can get a private test
If you’re determined to get a test to see your family, you’ll need to fork out for a private PCR test – you can get them from retailers like Boots for £120.
The test is much like the NHS test, which swabs the nose and throat for traces of the coronavirus. Results are delivered in 48 hours.
Depending on where you are, tests can often be booked for the same day. Once your appointment is confirmed, you’ll need to head to the clinic where you’ll have a swab (or two) taken. Some firms will send the test straight to you to do at home and post back to them.
The government website has a list of providers that offer private testing. Some companies mentioned on the list are no longer accepting new orders for testing kits.
Are there certain tests that work best?
“For those wanting to practice caution before socialising with vulnerable family members this Christmas, or those travelling abroad, they should ensure they are opting for the most robust testing available,” says Dr Joel McCay, from Melio Health, which provides a range of testing services.
“Firstly, it’s important to make sure you’re taking advantage of the PCR tests which are available on the high street, rather than rapid antigen tests which have proven more likely to come back with false negative results.
“And secondly, more and more ‘providers’ are popping up online who simply don’t have the ability to deliver. It’s especially important for people to background check firms, look at online reviews and choose reputable providers who offer fast and accurate tests, with results that have been analysed by a medical professional.”
What else should you know?
Despite the accuracy of Covid-19 tests improving over time, Dr McCay emphasises that taking a test won’t guarantee anyone is 100% safe this Christmas. “A PCR test can only tell you if you have or have not got the virus at the point at which you did the swab,” he says. “It’s essential to continue keeping social distance, washing your hands frequently and wearing a mask when needed.”
Private testing companies are experiencing a Christmas rush – so don’t leave booking a test until the last minute if you want to avoid delays. If you do have a private Covid test before Christmas, you will then need to self-isolate ahead of your meet-up to ensure that you’re not picking up the virus from anywhere else.
Dr Gill urges people to remember the other essentials for keeping safe this Christmas, too.
“If you feel that you will meet up for Christmas, minimising risk is key,” he says. “So keeping distance from friends and relatives, maintaining a flow of air through the house, and trying to avoid prolonged physical contact.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.