Covid testing: How reliable are lateral flow tests? How to get your two free tests a week

Covid passports: Matthew Wright hits out at lateral flow tests

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Lateral flow device testing (also known as LFDs or rapid antigen tests) can provide results in as little as 30 minutes. Two free lateral flow tests a week will soon be available to everyone in England, whether or not you have symptoms of coronavirus. The government said that, alongside the rollout of the vaccine, regular testing is “at the heart of plans to reopen society and the economy”.

How can you access your free tests?

The government said lateral flow tests will be available through:

  • The ‘Pharmacy Collect’ scheme, a new service in which people over-18s without symptoms can visit a local pharmacy and collect a box of seven rapid tests
  • Ordering online and delivered to the home
  • Workplace testing on-site or at home
  • Community testing to be offered by all local authorities
  • Collection at a local PCR test site during specific test collection time windows
  • Testing on-site at schools and colleges

You can check where your closest lateral flow test site is HERE.

But how reliable are lateral flow tests?

While the health secretary said the increase in LFDs will stamp out any outbreaks as lockdown is eased, critics have said the programme could be a waste of money.

With lateral flow tests, you still have to swab the nose and throat, but the swab is dipped in a fluid which is then dropped onto a plastic device, a little bit like a pregnancy test.

One line will appear on a paper strip showing the test has worked, a second line will show if you have the virus.

These tests, while thought to spot the majority of the most infectious cases, are less sensitive and can miss cases of the virus, as well as providing false positives.

A major review published at the end of March concluded that lateral flow testing was too inaccurate to be used in mass screening.

However, the government said they are useful in identifying the most contagious cases and therefore driving down the disease.

Number 10 said: “Lateral flow tests used by the UK government go through a rigorous evaluation by the country’s leading scientists.

“This means they are accurate, reliable and successfully identify those with COVID-19 who don’t show symptoms and could spread the virus without realising.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Around one in three people who have COVID-19 show no symptoms, and as we reopen society and resume parts of life we have missed, regular rapid testing is going to be fundamental in helping us quickly spot positive cases and squash any outbreaks.”

However, critics have said the prevalence of false positives creates bigger problems.

Allyson Pollock, professor of public health at Newcastle University, said: “Mass testing is a scandalous waste of money.

“When the prevalence rate of coronavirus falls as low as it is at the moment then an increasing proportion of cases are likely to be false positives meaning that cases and contacts will self isolate unnecessarily.”

Denis Kinane, Chief Medical Officer at Cignpost Diagnostics, told Express.co.uk the only truly reliable test is the PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction).

He said: “[PCR] is the only test that gives you almost 100 percent certainty about whether you have the Covid virus or not.”

Mr Kinane added that we “all want to get back to normality as fast as possible” but it’s important to wait until we can do so safely.

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