Half-hour hero: the lowdown on regular rapid Covid-19 testing

CASES of coronavirus are continuing to fall nationwide, lockdown restrictions are easing and life is beginning to get moving again. However, even though more than half the country has now had their first vaccination, the virus is still circulating. 

Getting regular rapid Covid-19 tests is important, because they can identify those who have coronavirus but do not have symptoms, helping to reduce the number of people spreading it unknowingly. The rapid lateral flow test comes in the form of a handheld kit, is easy to use and delivers results in around 30 minutes. Since the beginning of April, all adults over the age of 18 in England have been eligible to receive two rapid tests a week. 

But what is a rapid lateral flow test? And why do we need to take them twice a week? We put Sun readers’ questions and concerns to Dr Sara Kayat, a practising doctor and the resident GP on ITV’s This Morning.

1. Why am I being asked to take regular tests when I have no symptoms?

Around one in three people with Covid-19 have no symptoms – sometimes referred to as being asymptomatic. This means they show none of the key symptoms of the virus, such as a new, continuous cough, loss of taste and/or smell, or a high temperature. As a result, they do not realise they need to self-isolate and therefore could be spreading the virus without knowing.

Regular rapid testing is easy to do. Doing it twice a week, when you feel well, will soon feel as second nature as remembering your keys and face mask as you leave home. It’s a fast and easy way to find out if you have coronavirus, so you can start self-isolating immediately, keeping your loved ones and those around you safer.

2. Why do I still need to have regular tests if I have been vaccinated?

What we have seen so far is that the vaccination programme is proving extremely effective. More than 33 million people in the UK have received at least a first dose and evidence shows that this is reducing severe infection and disease. However, it is still too soon be clear about how much impact vaccination is having on infected people with no symptoms or whether they are passing it on. 

We need millions more people to be vaccinated for it to be truly effective – not forgetting that some are still hesitant to get their vaccine when notified and other groups, such as children, aren’t yet eligible. 

So it’s still really important that everyone gets into the habit of making twice weekly testing part of their routine, even if they have had the vaccine. It’s as easy as setting a reminder on your phone – if you do the test first thing, you’ll have your result by the time you’ve had breakfast, and be free to get on with your day following a negative result. 

3. How can the test show if I have the virus?

Lateral flow tests are well-established – in fact, they use the same technology as a home pregnancy test. The Covid-19 version works by detecting the proteins (called antigens) that are present when a person is in the infectious stage of the virus and returns a result within 30 minutes, without the need for it to be sent off to a laboratory to be tested. This means they’re easy to use and those who test positive can self-isolate immediately and help reduce the spread of the virus.

4. If I test positive, does my whole family have to isolate? And if so for how long?

If your test result is positive, you must follow the NHS Test and Trace guidelines. In short, this means that: 

  • You will have to self-isolate immediately for ten days from the day you took the test
  • Anyone you live with must also self-isolate for ten days from when you start self-isolating 

5. If I test positive, should I have a PCR test to confirm the result?

Yes, if your rapid test result is positive, inform NHS Test and Trace and book a confirmatory PCR test online. If you haven’t carried out a PCR test before, don’t worry: the process of taking the sample is very similar. You do it with a swab to the throat and nose. The difference is that it is then examined in a lab with specialist equipment. If your PCR test result is positive, you must continue to self-isolate for ten days from the result of your original lateral flow test and let your school or workplace know.

However, if the PCR test result is negative, you and those in your household can stop isolating. But please remember to still observe the hands, face, space and fresh air guidance.

6. How likely is it that a test will come up positive incorrectly?

The thing you have to remember is that no test is 100 per cent perfect. But the likelihood of a false positive in a lateral flow test is extremely low. So do test yourself twice a week – and remember that, in doing so, you’re playing a valuable role in helping areas of society stay open and keeping those around you safer.

7. Do rapid tests still work if you have one of the new variants of the virus? 

All rapid lateral flow tests are routinely assessed by Public Health England on their ability to pick up new variants. The good news is that scientists have found that the tests currently being used work just as effectively on people with new variants of the virus, such as the South African or Kent variant. 

8. I’ve heard the test swabs are sterilised with something called ethylene oxide. Is that safe?

Ethylene oxide is actually one of the most common sterilisation tools, used in hospitals to keep medical devices safe and ensure infections do not spread. Only a minimal amount is used for sterilisation of the rapid lateral flow test swabs and all appropriate regulatory bodies have confirmed that it is safe.

9. Can I order the tests in bulk?

When you order tests online, you will be guided through a series of questions to help assess the best way for you to access the tests based on your household situation. If you are directed to collect tests from a local test site, you will be provided with two boxes that each contain seven tests – this is based on your household taking twice weekly tests. However, 

if you have a larger household, you may be eligible to collect up to four boxes, meaning you will have a total of 28 tests.

With a little forward thinking, you will always have enough to incorporate twice weekly rapid Covid-19 testing into your routine. 

10. Will testing need to be around for a long time before things return to normal?

There are currently no plans to end free testing using rapid lateral flow devices. As set out in the Prime Minister's roadmap, the Government will keep this under review as vaccine deployment continues. So I would encourage everyone to start seeing it as part of our normal lives – in the same way we now grab a face mask before leaving the house. It’s also important to remember to keep following social distancing measures, regardless of a negative test, and attend your vaccine appointment when called. Together, we can all play our part in making the UK a safer place and keep life moving.

Visit nhs.uk/GetTested for information.

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