Updated on 10 December 2020

COVID Operations Helpdesk over Christmas

Lent Term 2021 COVID-19 testing arrangements

Expansion of the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme to include students in private accommodation

We have expanded the weekly pooled Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme to include many students living in private accommodation. Students living in College accommodation were already eligible for the programme.

Students who registered with their College by 23 November 2020 will be provided with a pooled screening test in the week beginning 30 November 2020, prior to the student 'travel window' from 3-9 December 2020.

This will be the last week the programme operates this Term. Subject to the availability of testing capacity and/or updated government guidance, we hope to continue to include students living in private accommodation when the programme re-starts next Term.

I’m not signed up to the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme – can I still get a COVID-19 test prior to travel over the Christmas vacation?

As well as expanding the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme, we will in addition be able to offer individual tests in the week beginning 7 December 2020 to students who are both (1) returning home over the Christmas vacation; and (2) belong to one of the following groups:

a. Students excluded from pooled screening in the week beginning 30 November 2020 because they were self-isolating for any reason.

b. Students with 'void' test results from pooled screening in the week beginning 30 November 2020.

c. Students unable to participate in pooled screening in the week beginning 30 November 2020 for logistical reasons (eg not in Cambridge).

d. Students in private accommodation who could not be included in testing pools by their College eg individual students living in private accommodation with non-students.

e. Household contacts of students with confirmed COVID-19 identified by the screening programme, unable to travel within 24 hrs of their negative individual confirmatory test. See also FAQ: “How soon after a negative test should I travel?

f. Students unable to return home within 1 week of their negative pooled screening test conducted in the week beginning 30 November 2020. See also FAQ: “How soon after a negative test should I travel?

g. Students travelling overseas who require a negative test prior to departure, and whose negative pooled screening test falls outside the time window determined by their destination country. See FAQ: "I will be travelling overseas – can I get a certificate to confirm that I have tested negative?"

h. Other students in self-isolation as a contact of someone with confirmed COVID-19, wishing to travel but not covered by the above. See also FAQ: “How soon after a negative test should I travel?

i. Other students on a case-by-case basis, after discussion with their College or the COVID-19 helpdesk.

Further details about how to access these tests will be provided soon. Provided you are eligible, it will not matter whether or not you pre-registered your interest with your College.

General information about travelling over the Christmas vacation

The UK Government has announced detailed plans for students travelling over the Christmas vacation.  The aim is to minimise transmission of COVID-19, and make it as safe as possible for students to return from university to households that include, for example, older or vulnerable family members. Further information about travelling is available on the Government's website.

Safety will of course be maximised if you have not been exposed to COVID-19, and we therefore strongly encourage you to continue to limit your social interactions after the end of national lockdown, currently planned for 2 December 2020.

In addition, a negative test for COVID-19 will further reduce the risk that you carry the virus away with you from Cambridge. It will not, however, eliminate that risk altogether, because of the latent period of infection (thought to be up to 14 days).

The government has defined a 'travel window' from 3-9 December 2020.  We therefore recommend that if you wish to travel away from Cambridge, you should make arrangements to do so then, and ideally as soon as possible after a negative test for COVID-19. If you are planning to travel after 9 December 2020, please make sure you have considered the latest government guidance, because it may affect your ability to travel.

Please note that whilst there is no requirement for any student to leave their accommodation over the Christmas vacation, it would be helpful if you could make your College aware of your travel intentions.

How can I book a test and obtain a test kit?

Test will be available Monday-Friday 7-11 December 2020. Your College will be responsible for distributing test kits to eligible students, and managing the number of tests conducted each day. Because of constraints on testing capacity, that number may need to be capped.

To help us plan, we therefore ask that you contact your College as soon as possible to let them know if and when you plan to take a test. Further information about how to obtain a test kit will then be provided by your College. Please be supportive of their efforts! Some students, for example, may need to compromise on the day they take their test, to ensure that the system works for everyone.

How do I take a test?

Individual test kits will be supplied in white envelopes, and are NOT interchangeable with the pooled screening test kits supplied in brown envelopes. Please follow the protocol for taking an individual confirmatory test , which is supplied with every kit.

When you register your kit using the QR code or website URL on the envelope (Step 15 of the protocol), you will additionally be asked to provide your mobile phone number. This step is critical, because we will use it to text you your result.

Please ensure you drop off your double-bagged sample at the nearest drop-box by 13:30 that same day. You must wear a face covering when dropping off your sample. Please note, these drop-boxes are NOT the same as the collection points for pooled screening tests.

You should receive your test result the following day. Your College will also be informed of your test result, and provide all the support that you need.

Can I get tested after 11 December 2020?

We will not be offering tests for COVID-19 to asymptomatic students over the Christmas vacation, after 11 December 2020. Subject to updated government guidance, we hope to restart the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme next term, in the week beginning 18 January 2021. 

In so far as it is possible, we are aiming to deliver end of term testing for COVID-19 in accordance with current government guidance, such as the “travel window” from 3-9 December 2020. At the same time, we always try to use our available resources to maximise the potential public health benefits for the University and wider community.

The risk of COVID-19 transmission is thought to be highest in College accommodation, and this has been borne out by our own testing data this term. We appreciate that some students will remain in Cambridge over the Christmas vacation, including in College accommodation. Nonetheless, the risk should be mitigated over this period by the reduction in student numbers, density and potential for interactions.

We have therefore taken the decision to pause the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme over the Christmas vacation because of the uncertain public health benefits of continuing during this period, as well as our limited capacity to provide staff and support services.

If you remain in Cambridge after 11 December 2020, and develop symptoms of possible COVID-19, you will still be able to access the University’s symptomatic testing programme throughout the Christmas vacation.

Private COVID-19 test providers in Cambridge

There are several places in Cambridge where it is possible to arrange a private test. These include:

I will be travelling overseas – can I get a certificate to confirm that I have tested negative?

A standard letter providing written confirmation of a negative test result will be made available if this is required for international travel.  If you have received notification of a negative test result and would like it to be certified in this way, you should contact your College in the first instance.

Please bear in mind, however, that it is your responsibility to understand the requirements of your destination country and airline before you travel, and the standard letter may not satisfy the requirements in every case.  Entry requirements for travellers from the UK can be found on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website.

What sort of tests will be used?

To support students travelling over the winter break, the UK Government has made available lateral flow (antigen) tests which do not require laboratory processing. These are much less sensitive than laboratory PCR tests. Since we already have a successful screening programme based on laboratory PCR tests, we will not need to use these lateral flow tests.

As with the Asympotomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme, samples will therefore be processed by the Cambridge COVID-19 testing facility at the University's Anne McLaren Building on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, which is part of the UK Lighthouse Labs network.

What is the chance of a false positive?

Based on our experience from the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme, we estimate the chance of a false positive PCR test from our laboratory to be approximately 1/400. This is lower than the false positive rate reported for the lateral flow tests made available by the government. Nonetheless, it may still be higher than the prevalence of asymptomatic COVID-19 amongst students at the University, and so a significant proportion of positive individual test results from the week beginning 7 December 2020 are likely to be false positives.

Should I get tested if I have already had confirmed COVID-19?

Whilst we do not know for sure the strength or duration of immunity to COVID-19, there have been few reports of people getting infected more than once. Furthermore, a small number of individuals with COVID-19 may continue to shed viral RNA (detected by the PCR test) for several weeks after their illness, and may still have a positive test, even when they are no longer infectious to others.

Students who have had confirmed COVID-19 are therefore excluded from the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme until 8 weeks after their infection. Likewise, Public Health England now only recommend repeat testing within 90 days of a positive result if you develop new symptoms of possible COVID-19.

Nonetheless, government guidance around end of term testing does not distinguish between students who have or have not previously had confirmed COVID-19. For example, if you have been identified as a household or close contact of someone with COVID-19, and you wish to return home to complete your self-isolation, you must still test negative before you travel, even if you have already had COVID-19. 

In practice, testing is not mandatory, and it is therefore up to each student to decide whether or not to access an individual test in the week beginning 7 December 2020. If you have recently had COVID-19, a negative test may provide reassurance, allow you to travel home to complete your self-isolation, or facilitate international travel. On the other hand, the risk of a false positive is likely to be increased, and if you do test positive, you and your contacts will be obliged to self-isolate again.

Either way, please remember that if you develop symptoms of possible COVID-19, regardless of whether you have previously been infected, you should still self-isolate, and may access a test through the University’s symptomatic testing programme throughout the Christmas vacation.

Should I get tested if someone in my household has already had confirmed COVID-19, but I have not had confirmed COVID-19 myself?

Most people with COVID-19 (with or without symptoms) shed viral RNA (detected by the PCR test) for 2-3 weeks. However, a small number of individuals may continue to shed viral RNA for several weeks, and may still have a positive test, even when they are no longer infectious to others. This is one of the reasons why students who have had confirmed COVID-19 are excluded from the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme until 8 weeks after their infection.

Compared with casual contacts, there is an increased risk of transmission of COVID-19 within households. If somebody in your household had confirmed COVID-19, it may therefore have been passed on to you (or other household members), and if you did not develop symptoms, you may not know that you were infected.

If you are subsequently tested, it is possible that a positive result will reflect 'previous' (old) rather than 'current' (new) infection. New infections in this setting may reflect ongoing transmission within the household, or incidental introductions from close or casual contacts outside the household.

It is difficult to quantify the relative likelihood of these two possibilities, because it depends on a variety of factors. As a guide, secondary attack rates (the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 from a contact with the infection) are generally lower than people realise (roughly 10% of household contacts in most studies). It is also unusual to shed virus for more than 4 weeks.

We are aware of a very small number (less than 5) of households across the University who have been asked to self-isolate because of participation in the screening programme, have completed their period of self-isolation, and then been asked to self-isolate again because of another positive test. We think that in at least some of these cases, the subsequent positive tests reflected new (incidental) or ongoing transmission of COVID-19.

In practice, testing is not mandatory, and it is therefore up to each student to decide whether or not to participate in the pooled screening programme, or access an individual test in the week beginning 7 December 2020. If somebody in your household has recently had COVID-19, a negative test would be very reassuring. On the other hand, the risk of a “false positive” may be slightly increased.

Either way, please remember that if you develop symptoms of possible COVID-19, you should still self-isolate, and may access a test through the University’s symptomatic testing programme throughout the Christmas vacation.

How soon after a negative test should I travel?

If you are not self-isolating, and have a negative test, we recommend that you travel as soon as possible after that test, and at least within one week. If you are unable to return home within 1 week of a negative pooled screening test conducted in the week beginning 30 November 2020, you will be eligible for an individual test in the week beginning 7 December 2020.

If you have been identified as a household or close contact of someone with COVID-19, you must self-isolate for 14 days. The government advises that, if you yourself test negative, you may then return home to complete your self-isolation, taking into account the risk of transmission to your family. You should travel as soon as possible after your negative test, and ideally within 24 hrs, using private transport wherever possible. Further information is available on the government website.

What if I test positive?

If your test is positive, as well as receiving your test result from us, you will be contacted by NHS Test & Trace. You will be required by law to self-isolate for 10 days, as described on the Stay Safe Cambridge Uni pages and UK government website. Your College will be informed of your test result, and provide all the support that you need. Because testing is available in the weeks beginning 30 November 2020 and 7 December 2020, you should still have time to return home before Christmas day.

How can I find out further information?

If you can’t find your answer here, you can email the COVID-19 helpdesk or the Asymptomatic COIVD-19 Screening Programme. Please note that because of the high volume of enquiries, we may not be able to respond immediately.