Where can you get a coronavirus test and when should you get one?

If you suspect you have Covid-19 symptoms, you can now order a coronavirus test. Here's exactly when and how to do it, and the different tests available.

woman on sofa on laptop - when to get tested for covid

Over the last few months, the government's testing system - either in person or through the post - has seen over 20 million people swabbed for the virus.

But as more areas are taking on lockdown restrictions among a rise in cases of the virus, those who perhaps have just got symptoms are wondering where they can get a coronavirus test and more importantly, when they should actually get one.

Especially as over the last few weeks, despite the new numbers of successful tests being released, some areas of the country have seen a significant decrease in the availability of on-site testing. It was reported that those looking to be tested in London, for example, were being sent over 100 miles away to supposedly their 'nearest' testing sites in Cardiff or the Isle of Wight. Now as new guidelines have come into place for the whole of the UK on how many people you can meet indoors and outside, it seems like another surge in cases has happened and more people are looking to be tested than ever before.

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When the news broke that the UK's testing system was flawed, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News, "At the moment the system works well. Of course there are operational challenges from time to time but it works well. And we are finding a higher and higher proportion of people in the country who have coronavirus and getting them tests so they can be looked after.

"But absolutely, we need to roll out more testing - we have done throughout the crisis and today's another step in solving some of those problems with the existing technology."

Since then, the government has announced further plans to increase coronavirus testing across the country and officially, they have now launched the new NHS COVID-19 contact tracing app to help keep the track and trace system up to date.

The statement from the health secretary came as the testing system was heavily criticised for the lack of availability, as it's believed that many people wouldn't travel so far to be tested. This in turn could lead to spikes in infection rates being missed in some areas not identified as being at risk for a local lockdown. So if you think you might have coronavirus, the best thing to do is get a test and find out whether you have to self-isolate straight away to protect those who you might come into contact with.

Where can you get a coronavirus test?

The quickest place to get tested for Covid-19 is at the testing site closest to you and you can find one on the government website. You'll be asked to fill in some personal details about yourself, such as you name and address, in order for the response team to contact you about your result.

If you opt to go to a testing site, this video explains how the process will work. Currently, the testing website is overrun with applications and many testing site areas are fully booked following a sudden rise in cases around London and other parts of the UK. The government hopes that by drastically increasing the number of people able to get tested for the coronavirus, they will be able to further improve the test and trace strategy and in turn, work to reduce the number of people diagnosed.

How to get a home COVID test

COVID swab kit - how to order a test

Credit: Getty

If you can't or don't want to go to a testing site, then you can order a test to your home which you return by post, via the government's website. The test arrives as a home swab kit, which you then use following the instructions inside the kit and return to your closest priority post box one hour before the final collection. You must aim to complete the test within 48 hours of delivery.

It's also important to bear in mind that the tests above are only testing if you have Covid-19 currently - an antibody test is needed to see if you have had coronavirus in the past, and so may have some immunity.

With children now back at school in the UK, although they are wearing masks in some cases, it's important that any child showing symptoms is kept at home and if necessary, a test is ordered for them and those in their household and support bubble.

When should you get tested for Covid?

To prevent the testing system being overwhelmed, it's important that you don't arrange to get tested for COVID unless you start to have symptoms. The most important ones to look out for currently are a new and continuous cough, high temperature, a loss of or change in normal taste or smell.

To reduce the potential number of people you spread the virus to if you test positive, it's important to get a test done within the first five days of showing symptoms. You, your household and support bubble must then stay at home until you receive the results. All adults and children in the UK who do display symptoms are able to get tested and you do not need to consult your GP or any medical professional before ordering one. Essential workers are still the highest on the priority list to receive a test for Covid, but now much of the testing for NHS staff, care home staff and residents takes place at their places of work rather than separate testing sites.

How long does it take to get COVID-19 test results back?

If you order a COVID test to your home, you can expect the results realistically within 72 hours. If you need your results quicker than that, the best thing to do is to find your local test site and go there as results come back within 48 hours.

Once you receive your results, if they are negative then you don't have to do anything. But if they are positive then it's important that the people you've come into contact with are aware that they could also have the virus. This is where the government's test and trace system comes into play. They will contact you and ask who you've been in contact with recently, where you've gone and for any necessary contact details. The government's contact team will then inform all the relevant people that they need to self isolate.

How long does it take for COVID symptoms to appear?

This is the very reason why it's vital that those who have been contacted by track and trace self-isolate immediately, as how long it takes for COVID-19 symptoms to appear can vary drastically from person to person - and some people never get them at all. Also known as the 'incubation period', coronavirus has been known to take anywhere between two and 14 days to appear symptomatic in someone. If they haven't been self-isolating before this point, then it's likely that they've passed the virus onto someone else.

READ MORE: Back to school: What safety measures are in place and how can children protect themselves?

To prevent this from happening, the government has asked that the public download the COVID-19 contact tracing app from the NHS as this is an easy way for track and trace to identify people. Face masks should be worn in all public spaces where it's difficult to self-isolate, which now includes in restaurants and pubs when not seated at the table. The health authorities has also continually advised that the public wash their hands more frequently and use anti-bacterial gel when not possible. The best way to slow the spread of infection, however, is to self-isolate if you feel that you may have come into contact with someone who is confirmed COVID-19 positive, or you are experiencing symptoms.

What is a new and continuous cough?

woman coughing - when to get tested for covid

Credit: Getty

A new and continuous cough is defined by the NHS as "coughing a lot for more than an hour, or 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual)."

As one of the main symptoms of coronavirus, it's important to know whether your cough fits the description.

Other important symptoms to note include: 

  • A high temperature: You "feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not need to measure your temperature)."
  • A loss or change to your smell or taste: This means "you cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normal".

How to find out about COVID cases in your area

The government COVID-19 NHS app for contact tracing is one of the newest and best ways to track the level of coronavirus cases, and the risk to you, in your area. It gives an area one of three categories - LOW, MEDIUM or HIGH risk, depending on the rate of infection. You can also track the spread by looking at the areas of localised lockdown and particularly, those areas at risk of restrictions since they will have a growing number of cases per 100,000 people. While most areas of England are still sitting under 50, those that go above it will have restrictions placed in the region. In these areas, it's likely that the demand for places where you can you get a coronavirus test are at their highest.

This is why most recently, areas like the North-east of England have taken on the new restrictions and London is currently under threat of being put under tough restrictions.

Grace Walsh
Features Writer

Grace Walsh is a Features Writer for Goodto.com, covering breaking news health stories during the Covid-19 pandemic as well as lifestyle and entertainment topics.  She has worked in media since graduating from the University of Warwick in 2019 with a degree in Classical Civilisation and a year spent abroad in Italy. It was here that Grace caught the bug for journalism, after becoming involved in the university’s student newspaper and radio station.