COVID-19 Testing: how it works and where to get one

The NHS has created a number of ways you can get a coronavirus test, from at home kits to dedicated testing centres across the country, which now include rapid lateral flow testing where your results are delivered within 30 minutes. The Government has now also introduced surge testing in certain areas of England, to help contain the spread of COVID-19.

You can now order Rapid Lateral Flow Tests directly to your home, on the Government website. 

We aren’t currently able to provide Rapid Lateral Flow Tests, but we’re working closely with the NHS and test providers in order to support our patients with these soon. We’ll notify you if and when we’re able to supply these.

 What is a coronavirus test? 

There are 2 main types of main tests to check if you have coronavirus now:

  • polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests check for the genetic material (RNA) of the virus in the sample. You send the sample for processing at a lab. PCR test results are usually returned within 48 hours of a swab being taken or 72 hours for a home test.
  • lateral flow device (LFD) tests detect proteins called ‘antigens’ produced by the virus. They give rapid results, in 30 minutes after taking the test (see below for more information on lateral flow testing)

The tests involve taking a swab of the inside of your nose and back of your throat, using a long cotton bud. You can do the swab yourself if you’re aged 12 or over, or someone can do it for you. Parents or guardians must do the swab for children under aged 12.

You can register for a home test kit or book a test at a COVID testing site.

Home Tests

Home test kits can be delivered to your door so you can test yourself and your family without leaving your home.

You can order your home COVID-19 test here. 

Instructions on how to use your home testing kit can be found here.

Rapid Lateral Flow Testing 

Local councils are now offering rapid lateral flow tests which are the new type of COVID-19 test to people who do not have symptoms. Around 1 in 3 people have coronavirus without displaying any symptoms, therefore regular testing for people with no symptoms will help find positive cases earlier and help break the chain of transmission. 

These tests are free and the results are given 30 minutes after taking the test

You can find out if your local council are offering rapid lateral flow tests here

Surge testing for new COVID-19 variants

What is surge testing?

Surge testing is increased testing (including door-to-door testing) and enhanced contact tracing in specific locations in England. It involves testing people who do not have any symptoms of coronavirus. 

Why is the government surge testing?

There have now been a small number of identified cases of COVID-19 variants. The government is using surge testing to: 

  • Monitor and suppress the spread of coronavirus
  • Better understand new variants

More information on surge testing, including the areas in England that this is taking place, can be found here.

Additional surge testing has also recently been announced to take place in Brentwood, Essex, where a single case of the COVID-19 variant first identified in South Africa has been found. More information can be found here.

Here’s a handy breakdown to help you understand when you should get a test, what it involves and how to book one.

Who can get a coronavirus test? 

Anyone can get a coronavirus test but not everyone can get a free test. You can only get a free NHS test if you meet at least one of the following criteria: 

  • you have a high temperature
  • you have a new, continuous cough
  • you’ve lost your sense of smell or taste, or it’s changed
  • you’ve been asked to by a local council
  • you’re taking part in a government pilot project
  • you’re going into hospital – you may need to get tested if you’re due to have certain procedures. The hospital will arrange this for you if necessary 
  • you’re a care home manager applying for test kits for the residents and staff of your care home.

When should you get a coronavirus test? 

If you have symptoms, get a test as soon as possible. If you’re in England you should have a test within the first 8 days of having symptoms.

On days 1 to 7, you can get tested at home, but by day 8, you will need to go to a test site as it’s too late to order a home test kit. If you’re ordering a home test kit on day 7, you must do it by 3pm. Test sites are open 7 days a week.

You can find more information on using at home test kits here.

Book a test

If you’re getting a test because you’re experiencing coronavirus symptoms, you must self-isolate (along with the rest of your household and support bubble) until you get the results. 

If you have no symptoms

You should not use the free NHS testing service if you show no symptoms. Your local council, workplace, university or school may offer you a rapid lateral flow test. You can find out if your area offers these here.

You can pay for a private test if you want to be tested out of choice, or if:

  • you’re planning to leave the country (only if you are legally permitted to do so - find out more on COVID-19 travel restrictions here)
  • your employer or school has asked you to get a test

You can purchase home test kits from our sister service, Chemist Direct - shop now


If your COVID-19 test results come back positive you must self-isolate to stop the virus spreading to others. More information can be found here

If your COVID-19 test results come back negative, you were probably not infected at the time your sample was collected. You should still take steps to protect yourself and follow government guidelines. 

Here’s a short video from the Department of Health and Social Care, on how to do your at home test kit:

Please remember the three simple actions we must all do to keep on protecting each other and the NHS: Hands. Face. Space.

Phil Day By Phil Day Superintendent Pharmacist Published 29/11/2020