Are lateral flow tests accurate? How reliable rapid Covid tests are - and how to order one

The twice-weekly tests are available to order for free in England and Scotland

The tests are to be taken twice-weekly and are available to order for free as part of efforts to control the spread of coronavirus, even if you do not have any symptoms.

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The widespread rollout cis intended to help the identify and more quickly control the emergence of new Covid variants.

More than 120,000 positive cases have been identified with rapid testing (Photo: Shutterstock)
More than 120,000 positive cases have been identified with rapid testing (Photo: Shutterstock)

But how reliable are the tests in detecting Covid-19 cases? Here’s what you need to know.

Are lateral flow tests accurate?

Lateral flow testing is a rapid way of testing people who do not have any symptoms of Covid-19, but could still unknowingly be spreading the virus.

Around one in three people with coronavirus do not display any symptoms, so rolling out this method of testing will help to identify positive cases earlier and break hidden chains of transmission.

As this type of test can deliver rapid results in 30 minutes, they are useful in identifying positive cases in the community to drive down the spread of the virus.

The tests go through a rigorous evaluation by the UK’s leading scientists, to ensure they are accurate, reliable and successfully identify positive cases.

More than 120,000 positive cases have already been identified through the use of lateral flow testing, according to the government.

However, when a person has low levels of the virus in their system, the tests are less sensitive than other methods, such as PCR tests which are mainly used for people who are displaying symptoms.

When Covid-19 levels are at their highest and people are most likely to pass on the disease, lateral flow tests can detect the vast majority of cases.

This type of rapid testing is most effective for identifying if a person is infectious at the time the test is taken, as the sensitivity level is high enough to detect the vast majority of these cases.

However, the test is less likely to return a positive result outside of the infectious window, meaning some cases may not always be identified.

How do I take the test?

Taking a lateral flow test involves taking a sample from the back of the throat near the tonsils and from the nose, using a swab.

This swab is then dipped into an extraction solution and dripped on to the device’s paper pad which produces a reaction to provide a result.

This result will be visible on the device in 30 minutes after the sample is applied. Unlike a PCR test, the swab does not need to be sent to a lab to get the results.

How to order one

People in England can order a test via a home ordering service, workplace, or school testing programme, or by collecting one at a local test site.

A new “pharmacy collect” service is also being launched to provide additional access to regular testing.

Those aged 18 and over without coronavirus symptoms will be able to use the service by visiting a participating local pharmacy and collect a box of seven rapid tests to use twice a week at home.

To find a rapid lateral flow test site in your area, or a local pharmacy to collect a test to do at home, enter your postcode on the government website.

A similar scheme is also running in Scotland, with free lateral flow tests available to order from the government website.

Wales will not be following the testing policy, as much of the population have already been receiving regular tests.

Lateral flow testing is currently being offered to people who don’t have symptoms, in a range of different settings, including regular testing of NHS and social care staff, as well as in universities, schools, care homes and other workplaces.

In Northern Ireland, you can only book a Covid-19 if you have symptoms of the virus. This can be done online, at a drive or walk through test site, by ordering a postal self-test kit online, or by calling the free phone number 119.

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