A Covid-19 PCR test is considered the most accurate type of test to diagnose current infection of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. PCR tests were the first type used to detect the virus in the UK back in February 2020 and have been available for longer than the ‘rapid’ lateral flow antigen test.
PCR tests are provided by the NHS for anyone with the following symptoms of coronavirus:
- A high temperature
- A new, continuous cough
- A loss or change to your sense of smell or taste
Anyone who does not have these symptoms but still wants to be tested for Covid-19 must either take a lateral flow test instead or pay to have a PCR test privately. Read on to find out everything you need to know about this process.
How does a PCR test work?
The PCR test, also known as the molecular or RNA test, works by detecting the presence of the virus’ genetic code (RNA). The first step in this process is to take a swab sample from your nose or throat, which is then sent to a lab to be processed. In the lab, a solution known as a ‘reagent’ is added to the sample. If the virus is present this reagent starts a chain reaction, creating billions of copies of the genetic material in the virus in order to amplify it, allowing it to be detected and analysed by scientists. This chain reaction is called the polymerase chain reaction, which is what PCR stands for.
PCR tests are the most sensitive form of test used to detect an active infection of coronavirus, but because they require a sample to be sent to a lab, results do take about two days.
When you might need to pay for a PCR test
The most common reason to pay for a PCR test is to travel abroad. It is not permitted to use NHS PCR tests for travel, so if you need a Covid-19 fit-to-fly certificate, you’ll have to pay for a test privately. Although lateral flow tests are also an option, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of countries with testing requirements in place do specify that only proof of a negative PCR test will be accepted.
Some employers may also choose to pay for private Covid-19 testing if they wish to set up their own workforce testing sites, in which case a third-party provider can be used for the required tests. Whether using PCR or lateral flow tests, regular testing in workplaces, schools and beyond plays a vital part in the effort to reduce transmission, alongside washing hands and adhering to any social distancing requirements.
Where you can get a private PCR test
Through your airline or travel company
If you’re travelling abroad, getting a PCR test through your airline or holiday provider is often the cheapest way to do it. The company may provide links to test providers and offer you an exclusive discount as a customer, so you can book your test for less.
At the airport
PCR testing is available at most airports and the testing centres here are typically cheaper than those found on the high street, with an additional discount if you’re planning to fly from there. Those who are travelling are advised to book an appointment at least 48 hours before they travel to ensure they get the results in time for their trip.
If you want to order an at-home testing kit and send it off to the lab yourself, you could buy a Covid-19 PCR test online and have it delivered right to your door. Prices vary by provider.
On the high street
A number of high street pharmacies have made private PCR tests available to customers, with prices generally between £99 and £120. Negative tests come with a fit-to-fly certificate and results can generally be expected within 48 hours.