A-Z

Covid-19 in the community

Testing for Covid

This section explores people’s experience of testing for Covid. The topics in this section are: 

  • Reasons for testing
  • Access to testing 
  • Avoiding testing 

 
The people we spoke to caught Covid in 2020 and 2021, when there were two main tests available to detect Covid:

  • Lateral Flow tests (LFT): These tests can detect Covid three to five days after initial infection. These tests do not need to go to a laboratory for processing. Results are available within thirty minutes. 
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests: A PCR test is more sensitive than a lateral flow test and can detect Covid a couple of days after infection. The test is usually processed in a medical laboratory, so the results can take a few days to come through.

 

Mandy describes doing a lateral flow and PCR test. She found the lateral flow easier, but she is now used to both.

Mandy describes doing a lateral flow and PCR test. She found the lateral flow easier, but she is now used to both.

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Well, the lateral flow is much easier, ‘cos it’s just a, up your nose. It’s the back of the throat that’s on the PCR which is awful, ‘cos it does, it try they say, don’t touch your tongue. Don’t ah, don’t touch your tonsils. Ohhh. And that’s the bit. Have you had when you always gag, uh, ‘cos it’s, ‘cos it’s gotta go back so far. And then, yes, so but I’m used to it now. I don’t mind.

 


 
Some people we spoke to, such as Zubair and Gwilym, also took antibody tests. These were useful for confirming if someone had Covid antibodies, which could be an indicator of a past Covid infection.
 
Access to testing has changed across the pandemic. At the beginning it was very difficult to access testing, and was usually only possible in healthcare settings. Across 2020 and 2021 it became easier to visit testing centres. In 2021 home testing kits were made available. 

Reasons for testing

There were different reasons why people we spoke to took a Covid test. These included:

  • Feeling unwell and wanting to check for Covid [see 'Early signs and symptoms of Covid']
  • Wanting to check if they had recovered from Covid
  • Knowing that they had been in contact with someone who had Covid
  • Being asked to test for work, school travel or social events 
  • Being encouraged to test by family and friends
  • Wanting to check if they had Covid before socialising, particularly with people they considered vulnerable 
  • Being asked to test by Track and Trace 
  • Being sent a test via the Zoe app 
  • Being invited to participate in a research study 

 
Some people we spoke to had some symptoms but didn’t initially suspect that they had Covid. Cat, a student, hadn’t been feeling well but just thought she was tired from normal ‘uni stuff’. It was only when she found out a friend had tested positive that she did a test. Sally was tired and had cold symptoms. She assumed that she was just run-down from looking after her newborn twins. Temitope had a cough and a friend suggested he do a Covid test ‘just for the fun of it’.
 

 

Ricky’s wife Sally took a test because her auntie was coming to visit. She was surprised when it was positive.

Ricky’s wife Sally took a test because her auntie was coming to visit. She was surprised when it was positive.

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Ricky: You were feeling a bit unwell. But not, nothing, we didn't think for a second it was Covid. It was just obviously we got four young kids, so we just thought it was a cold. But because her auntie was coming across, she got tested because she had an operation planned and if you don’t get tested and then go into hospital, obviously, we didn't wanna be responsible for her not being able to have the operation.


 
Other people we spoke with had suspicions about Covid based on their symptoms. They took a test to confirm that they had Covid.
 
 

Robert had a sore throat and decided to check if it was Covid. He was positive, and so were his wife and son who had no symptoms.

Robert had a sore throat and decided to check if it was Covid. He was positive, and so were his wife and son who had no symptoms.

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But when I got this when I got this feeling of soreness and so on, I said to my wife, “well, let me just check, you know, and see what’s going on,” and it turned out that I, it was positive [laughs]. So, then I tested my wife, and she was positive and then my son, he was positive [laughs].

 

Matt got a positive result on a lateral flow but his wife’s test was negative. They both tested positive on a PCR the next day.

Matt got a positive result on a lateral flow but his wife’s test was negative. They both tested positive on a PCR the next day.

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So, we then…my wife just did a PCR test, ‘cos she plays Mah-jong with a group of much older ladies and it’s part of the pact that they have that have respect for each other. They all do a lateral flow test before all meeting up on whatever day of the week, Friday or a Monday. And so I thought this was exactly seven days after I’d gone to the football match and started to feel really ill that I thought I’d join in and do the lateral flow test as well. My wife’s was negative and mine was immediately positive. And I mean when I say immediately, I if it was ten seconds it wouldn't surprise me if you know, the drop going in. So, we, at that point just spoke to the NHS and they said, can you get to a PCR testing centre this morning which we did and we both tested positive.

 

Sindhu was relieved when she got a positive result because it explained why she was feeling so tired

Sindhu was relieved when she got a positive result because it explained why she was feeling so tired

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And when the test came back positive for you how did you feel… seeing it there?

I think, I was relieved to be honest with you. I know that, ok that is the reason I was feeling tired… You know, you know it’s almost like an uncertainty in the, why is this? And oh now I know this is Covid. You know and I was not feeling really tired, I was just feeling a little bit tired in the first week but then I thought oh that’s how it’s going to be for me and that’s when it properly hit me, that’s different. In that first full week I was still working through it. Everything was… I was feeling tired but I’m, I’m ok but I didn’t know what is making me tired. But when the test came back positive oh, that’s the reason why. So it’s like ok, that’s good.


 
For people who had no symptoms, or were very mildly unwell, testing was the main way to work out if they had Covid.
 
 

Elvis had no symptoms but was encouraged by family to test when his father caught Covid.

Elvis had no symptoms but was encouraged by family to test when his father caught Covid.

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I went to the, I booked myself and then I went, you know, and there they take the, the samples and they find out that I, I also have Covid-19, you know. But my Covid-19 was dormant, you know. I couldn’t , I couldn’t, basically, you know, I, I have, I could do anything and I could-, I didn’t feel that I had Covid in any way whatsoever. I was a normal person apart from that they told me to isolate I think for 14 days, so I was in the house for 14 days. People would bring me food, left at the door and things, and I would stay in the house, you know.

 

Dawn took her daughter to get tested and decided to test too. She was shocked by her positive result because she had no symptoms.

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Dawn took her daughter to get tested and decided to test too. She was shocked by her positive result because she had no symptoms.

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At the beginning of December, one of my daughters was showing symptoms so we got her tested and it kept coming back negative and, on the off chance, because I was staying at home with my daughter and she did have symptoms but was testing negative, I got tested at the same time and I came back positive, which was a huge, huge shock to all of us.


 
Sometimes people we spoke to suspected that they had Covid, but tested negative. Noam was confused why he kept testing negative while he felt ill, but later learnt that it takes three to five days for Covid to show up on a lateral flow test.
 
 

Noam negative for a few days until his infection started to show on a lateral flow test.

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Noam negative for a few days until his infection started to show on a lateral flow test.

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Went to, took a test, came out negative, you know, the lateral test. But I knew that it was wrong because if Tamar has it and I’m right next her and I began to feel not well then it’s absolutely sure that I do have it and the tests are not coming out correctly. And I think it wasn’t actually until Monday that my test came out as being positive. Which was, quite somewhat of a relief to find out that it’s actually know what it is, you know. It’s not being said but it was only later on that I learned that it takes about three or four days of having it for the lateral test to come out with a positive sign.

 

Sam X knew ‘something was happening’ but tested negative for Covid. Her symptoms continued to get worse and she later tested positive.

Sam X knew ‘something was happening’ but tested negative for Covid. Her symptoms continued to get worse and she later tested positive.

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I know when I’m about to get a cold because I get a very sore throat and I did have a very sore throat on Tuesday. So I knew something was happening. I knew I was going to get ill. There was no coughing but there was a lot of phlegm. It felt in the evening, that night and the fever also started that night as well. So yes, so Tuesday was very sore throat, cold symptoms. I did a test, so I did lateral flow test on Tuesday. All my friends did and they all, we all came back negative. So that was that was, that made us feel, oh, I felt, I said, “Oh, it’s just a cold then. Oh, managed to just pick up a cold from Newcastle, We all have.” But then my friend was convinced it, then my friend, he did a PCR test that day, the same Tuesday, and that came back positive and I booked my PCR test on Wednesday, as did my other friend.

 

Access to testing

People we spoke to people accessed testing in the following ways:

  • Getting tested at a hospital, GP practice or other healthcare setting
  • Visiting a walk-in or drive-through test site
  • Receiving home test kits in the post
  • Getting home test kits from a pharmacy or other healthcare setting
  • Getting home test kits from workplaces 

 
Lots of people we spoke to liked having the option to check if they have Covid through testing. As well as giving them peace of mind that they were not spreading the virus, a negative test result was sometimes important for being able to do other things like go to work or travel. 

Challenges accessing testing

People who caught Covid at the beginning of the pandemic, like Genevieve, often struggled to get tested. Jess, who caught Covid in April 2020, said that she could not get a test ‘for love nor money’.
 

 

Susanne was frightened when she thought her family had Covid but couldn’t confirm it through a test.

Susanne was frightened when she thought her family had Covid but couldn’t confirm it through a test.

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It was frightening, it was frightening. My, at that time we couldn’t do any of the testing, so we didn’t have that conclusive diagnosis. The GP said he thought it was highly likely it was Covid. My husband still isn’t convinced, I don’t quite understand that to be quite honest because it fitted all of the symptoms, it’s just that we didn’t have the conclusive test. But it was frightening, and it was particularly frightening because I knew that a, I knew overall, I knew that children are less likely to die from it but there was a 13-year-old in our local hospital who died from it.

 

Genevieve, a molecular biologist, found a way to do a Covid test in her lab when no other tests were available.

Genevieve, a molecular biologist, found a way to do a Covid test in her lab when no other tests were available.

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I took a sample from my husband and made him spit in a tube. I had some, as a molecular biologist, I had ordered the reagents that I needed to test for Covid and I confirmed in my lab that he was positive. So, I don’t think he was infectious at the time, but he clearly had a lot, he was still coughing so I think it was a lot of dead virus that picked up on my, on my assay.


 
At times during the pandemic testing was sometimes limited to people who had a new continuous cough, a fever, or changes in taste or smell. This meant that people with other common Covid symptoms could not find out if they were positive unless they claimed they had one of the ‘big three’.
 
 

Cat described how it was a ‘palaver’ trying to get a test before the government introduced home test kits.

Cat described how it was a ‘palaver’ trying to get a test before the government introduced home test kits.

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I can’t remember a huge amount from the very beginning. I think it was just, so and so has come into contact with so and so who was positive. Then that group became positive. Then the next group was positive and we were like “Ooh, we need to try and get our hands on some tests.” And that was at a time when it was really, really difficult to get tests. Because you had to, because also we didn’t have the big 3 symptoms, so we had to then lie on the government form. And you had to put in so many details about your symptoms and your life and blah blah blah. And I had to do it for all of my housemates. And it was the biggest palaver which is ridiculous because now you get these lateral flow tests and they’re like free and they just send them to your house without any bother. But I can’t quite believe how difficult it was to get tests at the start.


Even when testing became more widely available, the emphasis on only three symptoms sometimes meant that people did not realise they might have Covid. Sindhu and her husband delayed getting tested because they didn’t have ‘classic’ symptoms.
 
 

Samena received contradictory advice about whether she and her husband should get tested.

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Samena received contradictory advice about whether she and her husband should get tested.

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The only thing I would say is what I felt was that everybody’s so focussed on the main three symptoms that they, they, because even me at the initial got told don’t get, you don’t need to get tested if you’ve not got the main three symptoms which is why it stopped me and my husband getting tested. Had the doctor not said get yourself tested before I give you antibiotics we would never have gone and thought this was Covid and got ourselves tested. You can only imagine my husband being a taxi driver how many people he would have picked up and been in contact with, you know, some are elderly, some are, you know, got other health conditions and it could have been really critical for them that’s my main thing. I would say that, you know, I mean I don’t know why it’s, maybe it’s, I don’t really know why they focus so much on the three symptoms when you look at my story look at my parents, look at me, look at my husband none of us had any of the three symptoms.

Local test centres

Some people we spoke got tested locally when they suspected Covid. Sarita visited a drive-through test centre. For people we spoke to who were feeling very unwell or who didn’t have a car, travelling to test centres could be difficult. Milembe wished that the test centre was nearer to her home. Gwilym drove himself to a test centre but felt that it wasn’t very safe given how sick he was.
 

 

Shaista wondered ‘if you don’t have a car, how do you get there?’ about travelling to test centres.

Shaista wondered ‘if you don’t have a car, how do you get there?’ about travelling to test centres.

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So, I applied for my Covid test on the website like most people did and I was told to go just outside [city] near [town] for my Covid test, so that’s where I had to go. I mean I would ask, like the early days of this pandemic if you don’t have a car, how do you get there? You’re not gonna get there on public transport because you’re not supposed to be on public transport. If you feel, if you think you’ve got Covid you shouldn’t be near anyone should you? So, the entire set up is just absurd.

 

Lyn couldn’t get a home test and doesn’t drive. Nobody would risk catching Covid by taking her to the test centre.

Lyn couldn’t get a home test and doesn’t drive. Nobody would risk catching Covid by taking her to the test centre.

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I tried to get a test. I couldn’t get tested. I remember the day that Matt Hancock said there would be a lot of tests available, I went onto the screen, the whole thing just crash right in front of me. I took a screenshot, sent it to my boss and I sent to the GP and said, “Can you not get me a kit? I can’t believe you cannot get me a kit.” So keep trying and there was nothing available. The home kits are available and I couldn’t, it took too long to go there because I don’t drive and nobody is willing to pick me up because I’ve got Covid to go to the to the centre, which I will then be exposed to other people and you are breaking the law for doing that.

Testing at home

Having lateral flow tests available at home was the easiest testing option for a lot of people we spoke with. June felt too poorly to leave the house so arranged for a test to be delivered to her. Tony B picked up a testing kit from a local pharmacy. Claudia only ended up doing a test because she had a test kit at home. Matt liked to do tests at home before visiting friends and family.
 

 

Claudia would have assumed her Covid was a cold if she hadn’t tested at home.

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Claudia would have assumed her Covid was a cold if she hadn’t tested at home.

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Well I honestly thought I had a cold because for me usually when I didn’t get colds often, I call my, I say to myself, ‘I had my annual cold’ but it was too early because it’s usually about December January time so I honestly thought I had a cold because my throat was a little bit sore which is just normal for me from getting a cold and I felt a little bit tired but then again thought, didn’t think anything of it and it was only because I had the lateral flow test in the house that I thought ‘let me just test.’ It was curiosity because had I not had the lateral flow test, I think I would have carried on as if I had a cold and that came back positive and so as a result of that did the PCR test, went and had a PCR test and that came back positive too.

 

Matt did a lateral flow test at home before seeing friends and family who were particularly vulnerable.

Matt did a lateral flow test at home before seeing friends and family who were particularly vulnerable.

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When the NHS made available free lateral flow tests, we just went to our local chemist who gave them out. We picked up a, you know, batch of them and we thought they may well come in useful or again, if we were going to go and see friends or family who were particularly vulnerable we’d want to make sure that we’d test ourselves before we went.

Avoiding testing

Some people we spoke to reflected that there were reasons why people might avoid testing. Samena knew that some people were ‘terrified of getting tested’ because of the impact of having to isolate. Shaista recognised that in situations where people couldn’t access sick pay, some people would risk spreading covid ‘so they can carry on providing food for their families’.
 

 

Shaista recognised that some people didn’t want to test because they couldn’t afford to take time off work.

Shaista recognised that some people didn’t want to test because they couldn’t afford to take time off work.

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We’re seeing you know, we’re seeing key workers and others all scared to take Covid tests because it means they’ll be out of work for ten days. They can’t afford it. I have a friend who is a keyworker who works actually in Emergency Services, and he said to me that amongst his colleagues nobody wants to take, nobody wants to use Track and Trace, nobody wants to take a Covid test because it means they can’t work for ten days. They’d rather just risk you know, the potential that they’re carrying Covid so they can carry on providing food for their families. I mean what a shocking state of affairs but this is, this is what’s going on because unless you have a system, a welfare system that works for everyone, unless you have a proper system in place that will make sure that everybody gets sick pay, everybody regardless of what they do can, you know, pay their rent, pay their mortgage and everything during a pandemic, you know, people are gonna carry on working aren’t they?

 

Samena always encouraged people to test, even if it might result in them having to isolate.

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Samena always encouraged people to test, even if it might result in them having to isolate.

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People are so terrified of getting tested because of the impact of having to self-isolate for ten days and the entire family they avoid it at every cost and I know that from talking to people, picking up people’s nerves if they’re not feeling well, you know, get yourself tested, oh no I don’t have the main symptoms so I don’t think, you know, I have, don’t want to go and, you know, waste their time and do it. I said “look you’re not wasting anyone’s time, I’ve been through it I know we would never thought this as Covid so just please get yourself tested this moment you start feeling unwell, you’re feeling, you have a sore throat, you’ve got sore eyes, you’ve got, even if it’s not coughing and you’ve not got a temperature if you’re feeling unwell and you know this is not a cold, you can tell with your body, you can tell this is different a lot, this is feeling, you know, not feeling well, you’re lethargic, you’ve got aches and pains in your whole body, just get yourself tested.”


 

 

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