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.

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’.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Early signs and symptoms of Covid

In this section we explore the first signs of Covid that people we spoke to noticed. Some people we spoke to had no symptoms from...