Opinion: Reliance on lateral flow tests is allowing Covid to spread

28 December 2021, 15:31

People are relying on lateral flow tests that aren't always accurate, writes Charlotte Lynch.
People are relying on lateral flow tests that aren't always accurate, writes Charlotte Lynch. Picture: Alamy
Charlotte Lynch

By Charlotte Lynch

Reliance on lateral flow tests and delays with PCR results is allowing coronavirus to spread, writes Charlotte Lynch.

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I spent the week before Christmas terrified of catching Covid-19.

Not because of how ill it might make me. It was the thought spending the festive period isolating, alone, away from my family.

Millions of people found themselves experiencing the same anxiety. I joined them in cancelling my plans, staying indoors as much as possible, taking lateral flow tests, until I was able to travel up North.

I made it! I was so relived. Except when I arrived, my sister found out a friend who she’d seen a couple of nights before had since tested positive for Covid.

My sister and her friends had insisted on taking lateral flow tests before they met up, which had of course been negative. But two days later, one of them returned a positive result.

The now positive friend had relied on the initial negative result. But that same friend had been out with another friend a couple of days prior, who’d done the exact same thing. She’d been in contact with a positive case, but she had returned several days’ worth of negative results on lateral flow tests, so she went out anyway. She’s double jabbed, so she didn’t need to isolate. Do you see where I’m going with this?

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My sister immediately took another lateral flow test. Negative, of course. But the next day, she developed exhaustion - she was wiped out asleep on the sofa by 8pm. This was her only ‘symptom’, but of course that isn’t one of the three you’re told to look out for in order to isolate and book a PCR.

She did decide to go for a PCR swab, to be sure. Just before she went for her appointment, she took a lateral flow - negative.

“You might have avoided it, you are double jabbed”, we all said.

Her PCR test was on Wednesday the 22nd December. Myself and my mum decided to take regular lateral flow tests too - all negative. Our normal Christmas as planned was looking promising. My Grandma was still on standby to come to visit on Christmas Day.

And so we waited. And waited. And waited.

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48 hours later on Christmas Eve and the PCR result still hadn’t come. A backlog at the labs with skeleton staff, we assumed.

So lateral flows it was - my sister took them daily, sometimes twice, and she was still negative. The exhaustion lasted for those two days and she was back to her usual self. She considered leaving the house. She’s double jabbed after all. My mum and I were also negative according to LFTs, and free of the classic symptoms. I had a headache, but thought we must be overreacting.

It was on Christmas Day that my sister took a lateral flow test which came back positive. It was six days after she had come in to contact with her friend who had Covid. (Thankfully, my Gran had decided not to join us for Christmas.)

At 2am on Boxing Day, my sister’s PCR result finally arrived. 84 hours later. It confirmed her positive result. She’d had Covid the whole time, but lateral flow tests failed to detect it.

I had been testing daily using lateral flows, and I experienced the exact same pattern. That morning I tested negative. By the evening, there were two lines. I was positive. It was six days after first coming in to contact with my sister, a positive case, and I had been testing daily, which had all shown a negative result until now.

The thing is, not my sister, nor her friend who gave her Covid, nor the friend’s friend who spread it initially, did anything wrong. In fact, they did everything right. They tested regularly using LFTs, and they were negative. They’re all double jabbed, so they didn’t have to isolate. If we relied on the lateral flow tests and the negative results they were showing, my family could have gone out as we pleased, my grandma could have spent Christmas with us as planned. All the while though, COVID was spreading between us all.

How many people has this happened to over Christmas? How many families have gone through the same thing? How many more have thought “the result is negative, so I must be ok”?

Before I tested positive, I went to pick up a takeaway. One of the waitresses was coughing every 30 seconds.

“I did a test this morning and it was negative”, I heard her reassure a colleague. It could have been nothing, but knowing what I know now, I feel very uneasy thinking back to it. (Side note: I’d spent an hour that day driving around pharmacies to try and pick up some more LFTs – they were all out of stock.)

Thankfully, we’ve all had worse colds. Our vaccines are doing the job and keeping us feeling well. My fear is that too many people are relying on the results of lateral flow tests and continuing with business as usual, even knowing they’ve been in contact with someone with Covid. They don’t have to isolate if they’re jabbed, and testing negative, so why not?

And that is not to blame them at all. Why shouldn’t they carry on as normal? They’re just doing what they have been told is right and is allowed. They’re vaccinated and testing negative, so why should they give up their plans after almost two years of being apart from family and friends, when all the signs are that they’re absolutely fine, that they’re safe?

I do wonder if part of the plan is to let Omicron spread. Is there an argument that because Omicron is milder for most people, as it has been so mild for our family, we should use it to help build up more immunity in the young population? If that’s the case, and lateral flow tests aren’t really as reliable as people think, will ministers see it as such a bad thing?