How accurate are lateral flow tests and when should you take one?

Secondary pupils have been taking lateral flow tests.

How accurate are lateral flow tests and when should you take them? - Credit: PA

As the Omicron variant threatens to disrupt our Christmas celebrations, testing is more important than ever if we want to enjoy the festive season safely.

But how often should you be testing and how accurate are the results?

Here are some key questions and answers which may help.  

What is the difference between lateral flow tests and PCR tests? 

Lateral flow tests provide results and tell people in 30 minutes if they have coronavirus by detecting proteins from the virus in the nose and throat samples. Scientists have mixed views on their accuracy. 

PCR tests are, however, extremely accurate but take up to three days for results to come through. They detect the genetic material from a specific organism, specifically coronavirus, and are the best way to test if you have a current infection. 

Both tests require swabs from your nose and throat. 

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When should you take a lateral flow test? 

According to the Royal College of Pathologists (RCP), lateral flow tests should be taken by people who do not have symptoms. 

A factsheet on the RCP’s website states: “These tests are very different from PCR. They are not suitable for diagnosing individual patients who suspect they may be infected because they have symptoms. 

“People with symptoms need a PCR test. Lateral flow tests are intended for picking up additional infected cases who would otherwise be missed because they don’t have any symptoms.” 

On the NHS website, it also says that people who have symptoms of coronavirus should complete a PCR test rather than a lateral flow test.

Current advice states that if you test positive on a lateral flow you should follow up with a PCR test. 

Sam Carpenter watches as Stuart Bedford carries out the lateral flow test on the new Covid-19 mobile

A lateral flow test being carried out on a Covid-19 mobile testing bus. - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

People are advised to do lateral flow tests before mixing with crowds in indoor places or visiting someone who is at high risk of getting Covid-19. 

It’s also advised that if you are vaccinated, but have been in contact with someone who then tests positive for coronavirus, you should do a lateral flow test. 

On Sunday, December 18, Irene Petersen, a professor of epidemiology at University College London, said official advice should be updated to say that people should take the tests just before they are about to meet others due to the fast infection rate of Omicron. 

She added that tests results “expire quickly” as people “may switch from being non-infectious to infectious within hours”. 

Government guidance currently recommends taking a test “if you will be in a high-risk situation that day”. 

Professor Stephen Reicher told BBC Breakfast on Monday that people should be doing lateral flow tests before meeting up with friends and family this Christmas. 

How accurate are they? 

A study by the Queen Mary University of London, the University of Oxford, the Institute for Advanced Studies based in Vienna, and the Medical University of Graz published in July found that lateral flow tests detected more than 95pc of the cases found by PCR and correctly identified 89pc of cases as negative. 

In March 2021, the RCP said positive results by lateral flow tests should be confirmed by PCR tests and people should self-isolate before they receive their result. 

Last week, the Health Security Agency (HSA) said lateral flow tests are as likely to detect Omicron as other variants of coronavirus. 

PCR tests are still considered to be the most accurate tests when diagnosing coronavirus but should only be used by people who are showing symptoms. 

How can you get hold of lateral flow tests? 

The NHS has a searching tool which allows people to find their nearest pharmacies which have tests available to collect.

Alternatively, people can order a pack from to be delivered to their homes. One pack can be ordered per day. 

They can also be collected from community collection points or people can visit a testing point near to their homes. 

Is there still an issue with getting hold of lateral flow tests? 

Last week, people reported being unable to order lateral flow tests on the NHS website while pharmacies displayed posters saying they had run out of stock. 

People trying to book walk-in PCR tests also encountered problems, with some being directed to sites several miles away or being told no slots were available. 

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), downplayed suggestions of a shortage, and said requests for lateral flow tests “have been absolutely astounding”, with “unprecedented demand” for PCR tests. 

Sir Chris Wormald, permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care, said issues getting hold of tests laid with distribution, rather than availability. 

The Company Chemists’ Association (CCA), the trade association for large pharmacy operators in England, Scotland and Wales including Rowlands and Superdrug, said demand had outstripped supply in some areas. 

Chief executive Malcolm Harrison said: “CCA members continue to receive supplies of lateral flow tests but we are aware that in a few areas there have been difficulties as demand outstrips supply, especially in the lead up to Christmas. 

Erin Horn looking in a mirror while taking a Lateral Flow Test as children arrive at Outwood Academy

People are being urged to take a lateral flow test before visiting friends and family this Christmas. - Credit: PA Images

“Pharmacies are managing the demand as best as they can and we urge members of the public to be patient at this challenging time for us all.” 

A spokesperson from Boots said the chain provides lateral flow tests at more than 2,100 pharmacies in the UK but “there may be a small number of stores that are experiencing temporary shortages due to higher demand in certain areas”. 

Lloyd’s Pharmacy said tests were available but there was “significant demand”. 

Currently, there are no issues with ordering tests on the government’s website.