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COVID test eligibility explained: when to get an NHS test and when to go private

Here at MyHealthChecked, we’re all about giving you COVID clarity. Right now, there’s a lot of confusion about testing around who is eligible for a free NHS COVID test, and under what circumstances should you seek a private test. In this guide – which we review regularly in-line with newly released GOV.UK guidance – you can find out where you stand.

Who can get a free NHS COVID-19 test?

At our most recent review (27/11/20), the circumstances that make you eligible for free NHS COVID testing are as follows.

Get a free NHS COVID-19 test ONLY if at least one of the following applies:

  • 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’re taking part in a government pilot project
  • you’ve been asked to by a local council

How to get the test

If this applies to you, please visit gov.uk/get-coronavirus-test. You can also apply on behalf of someone you live with or care for.

What about going into hospital?

You may also need to take a test if you are going into hospital for a planned procedure. In this case, your healthcare team will contact you to organise how it will work with you.

Good to know: if you do have symptoms of coronavirus, it’s important to register and get tested. GOV.UK states that testing is most effective within 3 days of symptoms developing.

Who can’t get a free NHS COVID test?

You cannot get a free NHS test unless the list above applies to you.

This is still the case if you live with someone who has or has had coronavirus; if you’re planning to travel for work or leisure; if you’ve visited a high risk area; or even you’ve been asked to take a test by work or an education provider.

Circumstances when you will need a private COVID test

If you have been in contact with someone with the virus but you do not have symptoms yourself.

You’ll need to pay for a private test for peace of mind in this situation. This includes if your child’s school or nursery has sent them home because another child has tested positive, or even if you live with someone who has tested positive for the virus but do not have symptoms. You can only access a free NHS test if the list above applies to you.

If you want a negative COVID result prior to visiting a vulnerable loved one

Even when you’ve followed all the government and NHS rules, visiting vulnerable loved ones in your bubble can be worrying. If you want a test, you’ll need to pay for your own private COVID test. For more assurance, you may also consider isolating for five days before testing, and from the test to the time of visit.

If your work tells you to

Unfortunately, you will need to pay for a private COVID test in this circumstance, though it may be worth asking your employer to organise this on your behalf.

If you need a PCR Test certificate for travel

When planning to travel, you’ll need to make your own arrangements for testing to meet the requirements of:

  • The country you’re travelling to
  • The airline you’re flying with
  • You can learn more about PCR Test Certificates in our guide here.

To take part in the Test and Release programme

If you are in quarantine following foreign travel, the Government’s Transport Secretary has announced that from 15th December there will be a new programme called ‘Test to Release’. This means that travelers into England with England as their final destination can reduce quarantine time by taking a COVID test that is organised and paid for privately.


REFERENCES AND SOURCES: https://www.gov.uk/get-coronavirus-test

Last reviewed on 27th November, 2020