Demand for Covid-19 tests has soared over the past few weeks, with many struggling to book a test, and reports of people being asked to travel hundreds of miles to get one.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has stated that asymptomatic people getting Covid-19 tests is a major reason for the mass shortages affecting the UK.
So who is eligible for a test and when should you get one? This is what you need to know.
Who should book a Covid-19 test?
If you’re experiencing coronavirus symptoms, you need to get a test done as soon as possible and within five days of having symptoms.
On days one to four of having symptoms, you can get tested at a testing site, or at home.
If you’re ordering a home test kit on your fourth day of symptoms, you need to do so before 3pm.
If you’re on day five of symptoms, you need to go to a test site as it will be too late to order a home test kit at this point.
With only a few exceptions, you must have symptoms in order to book a test.
The government website used to book tests online has been changed recently to be more clear about who can and cannot get tested.
The website states: “Only get tested if you have coronavirus symptoms or have been asked to get tested”.
You’re then asked to tick one of the following boxes:
- I have coronavirus symptoms (I’m not an essential worker)
- I have coronavirus symptoms (I’m an essential worker)
- I’m ordering for someone I live with who has coronavirus symptoms
- I’ve been in contact with a person who has tested positive for coronavirus and have since developed symptoms
The only reason you can get a test done without having symptoms are:
- You’ve been invited to take part in the ‘visiting professional’ pilot - you visit care homes at least twice a week and are often within one metre of the residents (only refers to parts of England)
- You’ve been in contact with a person who has tested positive for coronavirus and you’ve been asked to take a test by a contact tracer (only in Northern Ireland and Scotland)
- Your local council has asked you to get a test
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care told FactCheck: “We have always been clear if you have symptoms of coronavirus, or are asked by a clinician or local authority to get a test, then you should apply for one.
“While our capacity is the highest it has ever been, we are seeing a significant demand for tests. That’s why we have simplified the booking process and updated guidance to make clear that if you do not have coronavirus symptoms and haven’t been asked, then you are not eligible for a test as this may prevent others who need one getting one.”
Should I book a test before going on holiday?
Some destinations state that you need to have proof of a negative Covid-19 test prior to entry - however, this should be done privately and not through the NHS. The NHS does not offer travel related coronavirus tests.
Some private medical facilities offer private Covid-19 testing, such as the Mayfield Clinic which offers a “fit to fly” medical package.
The package offers a Covid-19 swab test and GP certification, with results delivered within 48-72 hours. The Mayfield Clinic states that this service “meets the requirements for international travel”.
The price for non-members is £285.
Additionally, private healthcare provider Bupa offers antibody testing, which is a blood test that can check whether you’ve previously had coronavirus.
You can book an appointment with Bupa online - the test costs £65.
You should be aware that having Covid-19 once does not mean that you are now immune to the virus.
Can I book a test for someone else?
You can also get a test for someone you live with if they have symptoms, however, do not get tests for people you live with who do not have symptoms.
If other people you live with have symptoms, you can order tests for up to three of them.
If you’re applying for someone who is 13 or over, you need to check that they’re happy for you to arrange a test for them.
Whilst you’re experiencing coronavirus symptoms and whilst you're waiting for your test and results, you should be self-isolating in order to reduce the risk of spreading the virus to others.
Anyone you live with must also stay at home.
What symptoms should I look out for?
There are three main symptoms to look out for if you’re concerned that you might have Covid-19.
These symptoms are:
- A high temperature
- A new, continuous cough
- A loss or change in sense of smell or taste
How do I get a test?
Depending on how long you’ve been experiencing symptoms, you can get a test done at a testing site or at home using a home testing kit.
You can book yourself a test at a test site or order a home test by using the online government service.
There are a limited number of home kit tests and in-person tests available at a time, so you might find that there are no appointments or kits available when you try and book one.
If that is the case, you should try again at another time, as more appointments are made available during the day.
If you have issues using the online service, you can get in touch with the helpline to ask for help.
You should not phone the helpline if there are no tests available as they will not be able to offer you a test - the helpline is only for those having issues using the website.
The number is 0300 303 2713 in Scotland. The lines are open between 7am and 11pm.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the number is 119.
How long does it take to get the results?
The government website states that it aims to return test results within 48 hours of the swab being taken, and within 72 hours for a home test.
Once you’ve had the test done, you and anyone you live with must self isolate until you get your results.
You’ll get a text or an email when your results are ready.
There are three types of results you could get:
- Negative, which means you don’t have coronavirus
- Positive, which means you do have coronavirus
- Unclear, void, borderline or inconclusive, meaning that it’s not possible to say whether you had coronavirus at the time of the test
If you receive an inconclusive test, you should arrange to get another coronavirus test done as quickly as possible while continuing to self isolate.
A version of this article originally appeared on our sister title The Scotsman