What is a PCR test and am I eligible for one?

The PCR test has become a popular method for testing for coronavirus - but where did it come from and how is it used?

A testing centre at an airport. (Pic credit: Tolga Akmen / Getty Images)

Since coronavirus has entered into our lives, two testing methods have been proven useful when trying to tackle the virus early on.

One of these methods is the PCR test. While its most common use in the last two years has been for covid-19, the test actually has a rich history decades prior to the pandemic.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

History of PCR

The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method was invented in 1983 by American biochemist, Kary Mullis, who died on August 7, 2019, before coronavirus gripped the world.

Its usage prior to the pandemic was for biomedical research and criminal forensics before it became indispensable for covid-19 testing.

Most of the PCR methods rely on thermal cycling, which exposes reactants to consistent cycles of heating and cooling to allow various temperature-dependent reactions.

Mullis won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his invention in 1993 and was also awarded the Japan Prize that same year.

Since coronavirus spread all over the world and we went into our first lockdown in March 2020, the testing method has been vital for those with covid symptoms.

What is a PCR test for coronavirus?

A test kit will be sent to your home, so you will need to remain at home while conducting the test. The main steps to a PCR test are the following:

- Give your hands a wash with soap or by using a hand sanitiser.

- Put out all the items in the kit on a clean surface

- Blow your nose and wash your hands again

- Open your mouth wide and rub the swab over your tonsils, avoiding the end of the swab touching your teeth, tongue and gums.

- Insert the swab inside your nose as deep as you can go or up to 2.5cm up.

- Put the swab, face-down, into the tube and screw the lid tightly.

- Insert the tube in the bag provided as part of the kit and send it off to the lab.

You can order a test kit on the gov.co.uk website.

If the test was conducted at a site, the nurses will send the swab to the lab. But if you have done the test yourself at home, you should only post it in a Royal Mail priority postbox. You cannot send it via a Post Office or post it in a non-priority postbox.

You can find out where your nearest priority postbox is here.

Find out more about the PCR method on the NHS website.

Who is eligible to take the PCR test?

Those who are experiencing covid symptoms, mild or severe, are eligible to take the PCR test.

Covid symptoms include: a high temperature, a new continuous cough and/or a change or loss to your sense of smell or taste.

However, you are also eligible to do a PCR test if you have:

- Been in contact with someone who has tested positive

- You have been asked to get a test by a local council or been contacted by the NHS Test and Trace

- A GP or any other health professional has asked you to get one

- You have received an vague result and were told to get a second test

- Someone you live with, who has symptoms, needs a test

- Or if you are in the National Tactical Response Group

How long after taking the test do you receive your results?

The majority of people who take the test, receive their results the next day, but it may take up to a maximum of three days.

Your test results will come through via text or email when it is ready, however, you may also use the NHS covid-19 app.

If your results don’t arrive by day six, call 119. Calls to this number are free from a landline or mobile phone and opening hours are from 7am to 11pm.