Updated on 25/1/21

Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme

Our pooled screening programme resumed on 18 January for students who are in Cambridge. As well as students living in College accommodation, we have been able to extend the programme to include many students living in private accommodation (see below).

Changes to the programme during Lent term

Compared with Michaelmas term, there are several important changes to the programme during Lent term:

  • Pooled screening test kits will be supplied in brown envelopes with blue stickers. They will NOT have the names of the students in your testing pool on the front. Instead, they must be assigned to your testing pool using a QR code or website URL on the test kit envelope. Please take a look at our guide to registering your kit for instructions. 
  • ALL students contributing swabs MUST each scan the QR code or enter the website URL on the test kit envelope at the time of swabbing, not just the pool lead. Submission of swab counts will therefore no longer be required.
  • Because of the reduced number of students currently in Cambridge, only 5 swabs will be supplied with each test kit. If more than 5 members of a testing pool will be participating in pooled sample collection, additional swabs may be obtained from their College.
  • Students in College accommodation will be screened Mon-Weds, and the swab day for your College may have changed. Students in private accommodation and eligible to participate in the programme will be screened every Mon, irrespective of their College.
  • Students in College accommodation should drop screening test samples at College collection points by 12:00. Students in private accommodation or from one of the Houses of the Cambridge Theological Federation should drop screening test samples at one of the drop-boxes used for the collection of individual confirmatory tests by 13:30.
  • SMS results notifications will only be sent to students contributing swabs, NOT household or testing pool members who do not contribute swabs.
  • In-line with the most recent UK government guidance, household contacts of students with confirmed COVID-19 will only be required to isolate for 10 days. Likewise, students with confirmed COVID-19 are requested NOT to take part in pooled sample collection for 90 days.
  • Students who are self-isolating for any reason but have not themselves tested positive will now be able to continue to be screened on a weekly basis whilst they self-isolate, on their usual swab day. However, they should take an individual test, not participate in pooled sample collection (‘Test to check’, see below)

Frequently asked questions

I didn’t take participate in the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme last term. Can I participate this term?

Yes, please do, if you plan to be in Cambridge this term. You simply need to complete our online consent form.

I live in private accommodation. Am I eligible for the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme?

During Lent term, students living in private accommodation will be eligible to participate in the programme if they live in a household or support bubble (two linked households) with at least one other student at the University (from their own or a different College).

Examples include:

  • 2 students from College X living together in a house.
  • 2 students from College X living together in a house with 2 students from College Y.
  • 2 students from College Y living together in a flat with their 2 children (only the students may participate).
  • 1 student from College X living alone in a flat and 1 student from College Y living alone in a nearby flat where the households are linked in a support bubble.
  • 1 student from College X living alone in a flat and 2 students from College Y living together in a nearby flat with 2 other adults (not University students) where the households are linked in a support bubble (only the students may participate).

If you live in private accommodation and would like to participate in the programme, you will need to confirm details of your testing pool with your College in advance, as well as completing the consent form.

If I participate in the programme, when will screening take place?

Everyone who has agreed to participate in the programme and returned to Cambridge for Lent term will be invited to contribute a swab every week, unless they have completed an exclusion report (see below for further information on exclusions).

Participating students living in College accommodation will be invited to take part in pooled sample collection Mon-Weds, on the same day each week (swab day), depending on their College:

Participating student living in private accommodation will participate in pooled sample collection every Mon (irrespective of their College).

You will receive a reminder email the day before your swab day, indicating who is in your testing pool, and who should (and should not) take part in pooled sample collection.

Are there any circumstances under which I should not take part?

You should not contribute a swab if you have not consented to participate in the programme, or if you:

If you have consented to participate in the programme and receive an email inviting you to contribute a swab, but belong to any of these groups, please let us know by following this link and selecting 'Report exclusion'.

*If you are self-isolating on your swab day for any reason, you should take an individual test, not participate in pooled sample collection (‘Test to check’, see below)

What if I have symptoms of COVID-19?

If you have one or more of the main symptoms of COVID-19 (a high temperature, new cough, or a loss or change to your sense of taste or smell), you should not take part in pooled sample collection. Instead, please self-isolate and book a test through the University symptomatic testing pathway or access an NHS test.

You may still participate in pooled sample collection if you have minor symptoms, such as a sore throat or nasal congestion.

What if I’m not in Cambridge?

If you have already consented to participate in the programme, but will not be in Cambridge during Lent term, please follow this link and select 'Report exclusion'. You will continue to receive updates about the programme, as well as reminder emails, but you will not be invited to participate in pooled sample collection. SMS results notifications will only be sent to students contributing swabs, not household or testing pool members who do not contribute swabs.

What if I’m self-isolating?

If you are self-isolating on swab day, please do not take part in pooled sample collection. Instead, follow this link and select 'Report exclusion'. This exclusion applies whether you are self-isolating because you have been in contact with somebody with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, or have recently travelled to the UK from another country.

During Lent term, students who are self-isolating for any reason but have not themselves tested positive will now be able to continue to be screened on a weekly basis whilst they self-isolate, on their usual swab day. However, they should take an individual test, not participate in pooled sample collection (‘Test to check’, see below)

In-line with the most recent UK government guidance, household contacts of students with confirmed COVID-19 are now only required to isolate for 10 days. When a case of COVID-19 is detected by the screening programme, household contacts will generally therefore perform one ‘Test to check’ individual test during their period of self-isolation, then re-join the programme of weekly pooled sample collection the following week.

If you have recently returned to Cambridge from another region of the UK and are limiting your social contacts prior to COVID-19 testing, you are not considered to be formally self-isolating, and you may take part in the programme.  

How can I obtain a test kit?

Because pooled screening test kits will no longer be named or pre-assigned, the mechanism for distributing test kits by your College may change, and they will notify you in advance of the new arrangements. This may, for example, involve distribution of a test kit to the pigeon hole of your pool lead, or pick up from an appropriate collection point the day before your swab day.

Pooled screening test kits will be supplied in brown envelopes with blue stickers. They will not have the names of the students in your testing pool on the front. Instead, they must be assigned to your testing pool using a QR code or website URL on the test kit envelope.

How do I take my test?

Please take a look at our revised swabbing protocol, which describes what to do with your test kits, and how to take your test.

Unlike in Michaelmas term, all students contributing swabs must scan the QR code or enter the website URL on the test kit envelope at the time of swabbing, not just the pool lead. Submission of swab counts will therefore no longer be required.

Because of the reduced number of students in Cambridge, only 5 swabs will be supplied with each test kit. If more than 5 members of your testing pool will be participating in pooled sample collection, additional swabs may be obtained from your College.

As a reminder, the video below shows how to take your test. Please note that this was recorded in Michaelmas term, and therefore does not include the changes to how you assign each test kit to your testing pool, using the QR code or website URL on the envelope.

Where you should drop off your pooled sample depends on what sort of accommodation you live in:

How will I get my result?

You will receive a text message the day after you take your test, informing you of the result. Your College will also be provided with the result, and support you if required. Please contact your College, or email us, if you have not received your result by 15:00.

Unlike in Michaelmas term, SMS results notifications will only be sent to students contributing swabs, not household or testing pool members who do not contribute swabs.

What happens if my pooled screening test is positive?

If you contributed a swab to a positive pooled screening test, you and your household will be asked to self-isolate immediately, and you will be able to obtain an individual confirmatory test kit from your College. These test kits are supplied in white envelopes.

Please don’t forget to read the protocol for taking an individual confirmatory test to remind yourself how to do so – this is slightly different to the protocol for pooled screening. In particular, it is very important that you scan the QR code on the test kit envelope, to ensure your details are linked to the sample.

Please then ensure you drop off your double-bagged sample at the nearest designated drop-box by 13:30 that same day. It is especially important that students wear face coverings when dropping off these samples.

What is the chance of a false positive?

Based on our experience from Michaelmas term, we estimate the chance of a false positive PCR test from our laboratory to be approximately 1/400. At times of high prevalence of COVID-19, only a small proportion of pooled screening tests are therefore likely to be false positives. Furthermore, the risk of receiving a false positive pooled screening test, followed by a false positive individual confirmatory test, is very small indeed. The potential issue of false positives is therefore effectively mitigated by our two-step testing strategy, involving both screening and confirmatory tests.  

What is the chance of a false negative?

Compared with the lateral flow tests made available by the government, PCR tests from our laboratory are much more sensitive. Nonetheless, because of the latent period of viral infection, a single test is only expected to pick up roughly half of all asymptomatic students with COVID-19.

It is therefore critical to remember that, whilst a negative pooled screening test reduces the risk of carrying the virus, it does not eliminate that risk altogether. For that reason, it is essential that students with negative test results continue to follow all of the infection prevention and control measures described on the Stay Safe Cambridge Uni website.

Should I get participate in the programme if I have already had confirmed COVID-19?

If a student has had a positive COVID-19 test in the last 90 days, they should not be tested again, unless they develop new symptoms of possible COVID-19. This is because we now know that very few people get infected more than once over this time period. Furthermore, a small number of people 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.

If you have already consented to participate in the programme and receive an email inviting you to contribute a swab, but have had confirmed COVID-19 in the previous 90 days, please therefore do not take part in pooled sample collection. Instead, simply let us know by following this link and selecting 'Report exclusion'.

What if somebody in my household has had COVID-19?

Most people with COVID-19 (with or without symptoms) shed viral RNA (detected by PCR tests) 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 90 days after their infection.

Compared with casual contacts, there is an increased risk of transmission of COVID-19 within households. If somebody in your household has confirmed COVID-19, it may therefore be passed on to you (or other household members), and – if you do not develop symptoms, and are not tested during your period of self-isolation – you may not know that you have been infected.

If you are next tested after your period of self-isolation has ended, you may still have a positive test, reflecting “previous” (old) rather than “current” (new) infection. There is no way of distinguishing these two possibilities, and you and your household would therefore be required to complete a further 10 days of self-isolation.

To minimise the risk of this happening, students who are self-isolating during Lent term will now be able to continue to be screened on a weekly basis whilst they self-isolate, on their usual swab day. However, they should take an individual test and not participate in pooled sample collection (‘Test to check’, see below).

'Test to check'

What is ‘Test to check’?

If students are self-isolating for any reason (for example, because a member of their household or close contact has tested positive, or because they recently returned from international travel) but have not themselves tested positive, they will now be able to continue to be screened on a weekly basis whilst they self-isolate, on their usual swab day. However, they should take an individual test and not participate in pooled sample collection.

In-line with the most recent UK government guidance, household contacts of students with confirmed COVID-19 are now only required to isolate for 10 days. When a case of COVID-19 is detected by the screening programme, household contacts will generally therefore perform one ‘Test to check’ individual test during their period of self-isolation (7 days after their household’s positive pooled screening test), then re-join the programme of weekly pooled sample collection the following week.

Following the detection of a case of COVID-19 by symptomatic testing, the timing will be more variable, and some students may perform two ‘Test to check’ individual tests during their period of self-isolation, before re-joining the programme of weekly pooled sample collection.

In either case, ‘Test to check’ is only available for students who are participating in the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme.

How will ‘Test to check’ work in practice?

Students will need to obtain a test kit for ‘Test to check’ from their College. These will be the exact same kits used for individual confirmatory tests. The protocol for taking an individual confirmatory test is slightly different to the protocol for pooled screening. In particular, it’s very important to scan the QR code or enter the website URL on the test kit envelope, to ensure that the correct student details are linked to the sample.

Students in College accommodation should drop pooled samples at College collection points by 12:00. Students in private accommodation or from one of the Houses of the Cambridge Theological Federation should drop pooled samples at one of the drop-boxes also used for the collection of individual confirmatory tests by 13:30.

What’s the point of ‘Test to check’ and what are the implications of a positive or negative result?

The idea of these tests is to check whether or not students who are self-isolating for any reason have become infected because of their possible exposure to SARS-CoV-2 infection. This will help reduce the risk of ongoing transmission within households (by identifying ‘secondary’ infections), and prevent repeated periods of household quarantine.

If the test result is positive, it should be treated in the same way as a positive symptomatic test. Students with positive test results will therefore need to self-isolate for a further 10 days following the date of the test. Where other household members are already self-isolating, however, their period of self-isolation will generally not need to be extended.

This is part of the rationale for conducting these tests during the period of self-isolation; without ‘Test to check’, students with asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection may otherwise be picked up in the next round of pooled screening, leading to a further period of 10 days self-isolation for them and their household.

If the ‘Test to check’ test result is negative, it will NOT mean that the student’s period of self-isolation can be shortened. This is in accordance with current UK government guidance, and reflects the fact that a single negative test can rule out most, but not all, ‘secondary’ infections, following a possible exposure to SARS-CoV-2 (depending on the timing).

Nonetheless, students with negative ‘Test to check’ results will be able to re-join the programme of weekly pooled sample collection after their period of self-isolation knowing that their risk of having a positive screening test result because of “previous” (old) rather than “current” (new) infection, has been greatly reduced.

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 COVID-19 Screening Programme. Because of the high volume of enquiries, we may not be able to respond immediately.

 

Return to Cambridge tests

In addition to the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme, we will now also be offering individual tests for students returning to Cambridge during Lent term, if there will be a delay of more than 3 days before their next swab day (similar to the ‘start of term’ tests we offered in the week beginning 11 January). Students will need to obtain a test kit from their College. These will be the exact same kits used for individual confirmatory tests, and tests may be taken Mon-Thurs inclusive.

Can I take one of these tests if I am not participating in the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme?

Yes, these tests are available for all students. If you are not participating it the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme, please take special care when you register your kit using the QR code or website URL on the envelope, because we will text your result to the mobile number you provide at that time (see below).

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

Tests may be taken Mon-Thurs inclusive. Your College will be responsible for distributing test kits to eligible students. Please therefore 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.

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 with blue stickers. 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.

What sort of tests will be used?

To support students returning to university, the 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 testing programme based on laboratory PCR tests, we will not need to use these lateral flow tests.

As with the Asymptomatic 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 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 and UK government websites. Your College will be informed of your test result, and provide all the support that you need.

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. A fraction of positive individual test results during Lent term will therefore inevitably be false positives.

What is the chance of a false negative?

Compared with the lateral flow tests made available by the government, PCR tests are much more sensitive. Nonetheless, because of the latent period of viral infection, a single test (without a preceding period of quarantine) is only expected to pick up roughly half of all asymptomatic students with COVID-19.

It is therefore critical to remember that, whilst a negative test reduces the risk of carrying the virus, it does not eliminate that risk altogether. For that reason, it is essential that students with negative test results continue to follow all of the infection prevention and control measures described on the Stay Safe Cambridge Uni website.

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

If a student has had a positive COVID-19 test in the last 90 days, they should not be tested again, unless they develop new symptoms of possible COVID-19. This is because we now know that very few people get infected more than once over this time period. 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.

I’m an international student returning to Cambridge at the start of Lent term. Can I take a test to release me from quarantine?

By default, the government currently requires individuals travelling to the UK from another country to self-isolate for 10 days. As an alternative, the ‘Test to Release for International Travel’ scheme, allows travellers from some countries to take a private COVID-19 test after 5 days, and stop self-isolating if the result is negative. 

It is NOT currently possible to use tests from our programmes for this scheme. This reflects a number of regulatory and operational barriers. We will keep these under review, and update this information if government regulations change. A list of private providers offering this service in Cambridge is provided below.

Please note that students participating in the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme must NOT take part in pooled sample collection whilst they are self-isolating, including students self-isolating because of recent international travel. Instead, students who are self-isolating on their swab day for any reason may take an individual test (‘Test to check’, see above). Like other tests from our programmes, it is NOT currently possible to use these tests for ‘Test to release’.

Where can I find a private COVID-19 test provider in Cambridge?

There are several places in Cambridge where it is possible to arrange a private test (not for Test and Release purposes, see above). These include:

 

Symptomatic testing

We are continuing to offer testing at the University or Addenbrooke’s Hospital pods for any student or staff member with symptoms of possible COVID-19, whether or not they are participating in the Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme.