A man walks up to a COVID-19 testing facility at the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter in Oxford
The Testing for COVID-19: Early Alert Service pod at the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter

PCR testing 

Last reviewed 31 August 2021

The University’s in-house COVID-19 testing service is open to all staff and students of the University and colleges, providing rapid access to free testing for those with coronavirus symptoms; or who have received a positive Lateral Flow Device (LFD) test result; or who have been advised they are a close contact of, or a member of the same household as, someone who has a PCR-confirmed case of COVID-19.

Colds, flu and coronavirus can have similar symptoms. (This BBC article on ‘Covid symptoms: Is it a cold or coronavirus?’ may be useful in understanding the difference.) Some people with the Delta variant may experience symptoms similar to those of a bad cold (sore throat, headache, runny nose) with a mild fever (for further information, see this BBC article on symptoms linked with the Delta variant). If you think you may have COVID, you should book a PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test.

It is still possible to get COVID even if fully vaccinated, so everyone should be alert to this and get tested if concerned. 

If you are looking for information about Lateral Flow Device (LFD) testing, please see our symptom-free testing page.

Where to find our sites

The central testing site is in the city centre, located in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter (ROQ). The service is aligned with NHS and PHE guidelines and uses proven technologies and standard NHS procedures.

Book a PCR test    Report a PCR test 

(Please note: SSO is required)

For enquiries related to booking a University test, please contact eas-enquiries@medsci.ox.ac.uk. You may also call 01865 (6)19119 between 10am and 2pm Mon-Fri, including to book a test if you are struggling to use your SSO (and you have a Staff or Student University Card).  Please note that only the person seeking the test should call.  The Early Alert Service cannot allow booking for others.

Important information for those booking a test

**New 19 August 2021** When you need to self-isolate (SSO required)

Prompt and effective self-isolation is a vital step in limiting COVID-19 transmission. It is very important that everyone self-isolates when asked to do so by NHS Test and Trace, the EAS Results Liaison Team or their (college, department, faculty) COVID contact.

Staff and students need to self-isolate in the following instances: 

  • If you test positive for COVID-19.
  • If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, you should self-isolate immediately and book a PCR test as soon as possible.
  • While you wait for your PCR test and results: you (and the rest of your household, unless they are exempt) must self-isolate until you have the results of your test. If you are taking a PCR test because you have been informed that you are a close contact of someone outside of your household, you (but not your household) will need to self-isolate whilst waiting for your PCR result, unless you are exempt.
  • If the PCR test result is positive: you must continue to self-isolate (go to the NHS website to find out how long to self-isolate for). Your household members should now book a PCR test and must also self-isolate unless they are exempt.
  • If any member of your household has symptoms of COVID-19 (mandating a confirmatory PCR): all members of the household must self-isolate in line with NHS and government guidance (go to the NHS website to find out how long to self-isolate for) unless exempt. If the PCR test is negative then the household member with the symptoms and their household can stop self-isolating.
  • If you test positive in any Lateral Flow Device tests (including those in community testing or received from the government via another route): you must self-isolate immediately and book a confirmatory PCR test as soon as possible, preferably through the Early Alert Service. Your household members will also need to self-isolate, unless they are exempt.
  • If you are a close contact you (but not your household) must immediately self-isolate (unless you are exempt): you should book a PCR test (preferably through the Early Alert Service) as soon as you are told that you are a contact by NHS Test and Trace, the EAS Results Liaison Team or your college/department/faculty COVID contact. If you test positive, or develop symptoms, you must self-isolate (regardless of your vaccination status)and your household must self-isolate (unless they are exempt). A negative PCR test will not release you from self-isolation if you are not exempt - but will mean that your household members do not need to start self-isolating.

Contacts who are not required to self-isolate from 16 August

You are no longer required to self-isolate if you are notified you have had close contact with someone with COVID-19 (including if you are a household member of someone with COVID-19) and any of the following apply: 

  • you are fully vaccinated
  • you are below the age of 18 years 6 months
  • you have taken part in or are currently part of an approved COVID-19 vaccine trial 
  • you are not able to get vaccinated for medical reasons.

Fully vaccinated means that you have been vaccinated with an MHRA-approved COVID-19 vaccine in the UK, and at least 14 days have passed since you received your final dose of that vaccine.

Please see the NHS website for further information on when to self-isolate

Reporting external results

If you (staff or student) receive a test result, positive or negative, through a route other than the University Early Alert service (eg via the national NHS service), you must report your result by using the Report a Test button on this page. If positive, you should continue to self-isolate, and report your absence to your department and college. The information you provide will enable the University and/or your college to take any action that may be appropriate to protect our community, and to maintain a full picture of the prevalence of COVID-19 within the collegiate University. 

Students: adding mobile numbers

So that Test and Trace can contact you as quickly as possible, it is important that students’ mobile phone numbers are included in the Student Record. If you are a student, please log in to Student Self Service and check your mobile number in the 'my contacts information' section is up-to-date. You should also be registered with a local doctors' surgery, and ensure address and contact details are up-to-date on their systems. These are not requirements to access the service.

How to book a test

Book a test if you experience symptoms of COVID-19. The main symptoms are high temperature, a new continuous cough, or loss of taste or smell. Some people with the Delta variant, however, may experience symptoms similar to those of a bad cold (sore throat, headache, runny nose) with a mild fever.

Please do not book a test unless you:

  • have symptoms, OR
  • have received a positive Lateral Flow Device (LFD) test result, OR
  • have been advised you are a close contact of, or a member of the same household as, someone who has a PCR-confirmed case of COVID-19, OR
  • have been instructed to book a test by public health authorities. 

If negative 

You may return to your normal way of life as long as you are not self-isolating due to close contact or quarantine (in which case you must complete the 10 days regardless). Your department and college will be notified of the result; but please inform them if you still need to self- isolate.

If positive

The Results Liaison Team will notify your department and/or college. You should self-isolate, and public health staff will contact you to initiate the track and trace process. Your household members should book a PCR test and must also self-isolate unless they are exempt.

FAQs

About the Testing for COVID-19: Early Alert Service

The Testing for COVID-19: Early Alert Service (EAS) is a free, customised service for staff and students of the University that will benefit the local community by reducing the risk of a further COVID-19 outbreak and reducing the pressure on NHS testing facilities. Designed specifically for a University environment, the service will ensure that anyone with suspected COVID-19 is quickly identified, with a rapid response initiated to protect others from transmission. 

The University continues to evaluate various future options for better and wider testing of staff and students for COVID-19.  It is constantly reviewing developments in government guidance, existing NHS/PHE facilities, local requirements and any new approved and appropriate tests as they become available. Professor Chris Conlon, Chair of the University’s Health Measures Advisory Group, has published a white paper on the University’s current approach to COVID testing. The paper includes an assessment of the COVID testing environment, an explanation of the Testing for COVID-19: Early Alert Service (EAS) and of the alternative testing models and options which the University is keeping under review.

EAS Michaelmas Term Report

Professor David Mant, outgoing EAS Clinical Director, provides a comprehensive analysis of University testing in Michaelmas term.

Who is eligible to use the service?

Any student or member of staff at the collegiate University who has a University card and an SSO (Single Sign On) password may use the service.

Can family members of staff and students use the University testing service?

The University testing service is available to all staff and students. At present, it is unable to provide testing for family members. While we will keep this under review should we be able to resolve legal and capacity issues, for now family members should continue to use NHS testing services.

Can I book a test if I don’t have the main COVID-19 symptoms but I'm feeling unwell?

The three main symptoms that NHS guidance asks you to look out for are high temperature, a new continuous cough and loss of taste or smell. Previously, most people with COVID-19 have had at least one of these. Some people with the newer Delta variant, however, may experience symptoms similar to those of a bad cold (sore throat, headache, runny nose) with a mild fever. If you think you may have COVID, you should book a PCR test.

Colds, flu and coronavirus can have similar symptoms. This BBC article on ‘Covid symptoms: Is it a cold or coronavirus?’ may be useful in understanding the difference; or see this BBC article on symptoms linked with the Delta variant.

If you’re feeling unwell and living alone, make sure you have informed people who can check on you and offer support. You may of course have another illness that requires medical care, so please do not suffer in isolation if you’re feeling seriously unwell. Seek medical advice if your symptoms worsen.

Where is the testing service and how will I find it? 

The central testing site is in the city centre at the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter (ROQ) – postcode OX2 6GG. A second site is located at the Old Road Campus in Headington – postcode OX3 7LG. However, this is not currently in operation. When you receive confirmation of booking, you will receive a site map showing you the precise location of the testing centre. If it's helpful, you can view images of the ROQ testing pod and the Old Road Campus testing pod. 'Early Alert Service' is marked clearly on the sides and door of the testing centres.

How do I book a test?

Booking is done online at https://earlyalert.medsci.ox.ac.uk/. You will need to sign in using your SSO. You will need to complete a booking form, giving your personal details including NHS number. You will be given a choice of times and, if both testing centres are open, a choice of locations.

What if I can’t use my Single Sign on (SSO) to book a test?

Common reasons for this are:

  • You have completed your studies so are not eligible to use the University’s Testing Service. If you are feeling unwell with COVID-19 symptoms then you should book your test with the NHS.
  • You have not activated your SSO either because you are new to Oxford University or your job role hasn’t required IT use. You can get help activating your SSO from your own college’s or department’s IT Support Staff or from the service desk at IT Services on 01865 (6)12345.

What if I want to cancel or change the time of a test?

You can cancel a test online. If you want to change the time, simply cancel and rebook. When attending your test, please make every effort to be on time, as late arrivals can seriously disrupt the service. 

Can I just turn up?

For safety reasons, and to manage demand, we ask that you use the online booking service. You will not be seen if you attend the testing sites without an appointment.

Do the testing centres have wheelchair access?

Yes, there is ramp access to both entry and exit doors and a bell to press for the door to be opened.

Do I have to wear a face covering?

Yes, please wear a face covering to protect others on your way to the testing centre.

How should I travel to the site?

The two University testing centres are pedestrian or bicycle access only. If you are too unwell to walk or travel by bicycle to the testing centre you should seek NHS help, either by contacting your own GP, phoning 111 or in an emergency phoning 999. You should not travel to a testing centre by public transport.

The NHS testing site at Oxford Parkway, which is not part of the University Early Alert Service, is accessible by car, and tests can be arranged online.

If you use the NHS service, please inform your department or college as appropriate of the test and of the result, and report your result online to the Early Alert Service.

Why should I use this service and not the NHS?

The test we use is provided by the NHS. The main advantages of the University service are that: a) the swab will be done (or supervised, in the case of students, initially) by someone trained and experienced in swabbing, so the result may be more accurate; b) your college/department will be informed about the result, so can take rapid action to support you and protect others when necessary. You may also find that we can offer you a more rapid and convenient appointment for testing.

What happens at the testing centre?

Your mouth and nose will be swabbed. This is a bit unpleasant but you will be given an opportunity to discuss any concerns in advance, and the person conducting the swab will stop immediately if you raise your arm to indicate you are experiencing undue discomfort.

Students will be asked to self-swab. This will be under the careful supervision of a nurse or senior medical student.

Except in periods of very high demand for testing, after the swab you will have a consultation with a nurse or senior medical student. They will ask you about your exposure to proven cases of COVID-19, any symptoms (giving you advice about what to do if your symptoms worsen), and advise you how to make a list of possible close contacts so you can be ready to give it to the public health team responsible for contact tracing if you test positive.

How long do I have to wait for the results?

We will make every effort to provide results within 24 hours of testing, although during periods of high demand or as a consequence of the swab testing machine breakdown/maintenance, results can be significantly delayed. Please email the Results Liaison Team if you have not received your result within 48 hours. 

Can you send my test results elsewhere (eg to a different email address)?

In line with patient confidentiality, we can only give medical test results to the University email address or to the phone number registered on our system. 

What happens if I test negative?

If you have been self-isolating and test negative, you can stop self-isolating except in three circumstances:

  1. You continue to have a high temperature – in which case you must continue to self-isolate following government guidelines (if you also have diarrhoea or vomiting, self-isolate for 48 hours after these symptoms have subsided).
  2. You have been instructed to self-isolate because you are a known contact of a proven case (and you do not meet the criteria for exemption from self-isolation) – in which case you must continue to do so until the end of the instructed period. A negative test does not release you from these quarantine requirements, as you could still be incubating the virus.
  3. You are in self-isolation because of government quarantine requirements on arrival from overseas – in which case you must continue to do so until the end of the instructed period. As above, a negative test does not release you from these quarantine requirements, as you could still be incubating the virus.

Your department (and college, if applicable) will be notified of the result, but please inform them if you still need to self-isolate. 

What happens if I test positive?

If the result is positive, the Results Liaison Team will notify your department and/or college. At this point your household will also need to self-isolate (unless they are exempt) and should also book a PCR test. You should follow these steps:

  • Self-isolate: you and your household should follow government self-isolation guidelines, and should always self-isolate for longer if your temperature has not returned to normal.
  • Contact tracing: public health staff will contact you to initiate contact tracing. Please be as helpful as possible, as a rapid response helps to minimise risks to others. You are also strongly encouraged to alert any recent close contacts directly yourself (or via your college or department).

How accurate are the tests?

The test assays have high accuracy. Inaccuracy in the test result occurs because either: 1) the swab does not pick up the virus when present; or 2) despite having the illness, the virus is not present in your mouth/throat.

In the first week of symptoms, a well-conducted swab will pick up the virus in only 75-80% of people who have become infected. However, the 20-25% of cases who do not have detectable virus in their mouth/throat are at less risk of transmitting it to others. Hence if you test negative (and don’t have continuing symptoms or haven’t already been instructed to self-isolate by Public Health England for other reasons) you will be able to stop self-isolating.

How do you define 'recent close contact'?

You are likely to be considered a 'recent close contact' of someone who has tested positive (and therefore at risk of infection) if:

  • You have had face-to-face contact (eg a close conversation or a hug); 

  • You have been within one metre, without face-to-face contact, for one minute or more; or

  • You have been less than two metres away from them for more than 15 minutes over the course of a single day, particularly in an enclosed space (the 15 minutes test applies to cumulative exposure, not just to individual events); AND

  • The contact occurred any time from the two days before they experienced COVID-19 symptoms onwards. 

What do I do if I'm told I am a close contact?

If you are a close contact you (but not your household) must immediately self-isolate unless you are exempt. You should book a PCR test (preferably through the Early Alert Service) as soon as you are told that you are a contact by NHS Test and Trace, the EAS Results Liaison Team or your college/department/faculty COVID contact.

If you test positive, or develop symptoms, you must self-isolate, and your household members should also take a PCR test and must self-isolate unless exempt. A negative PCR test will not release you from self-isolation - but will mean that your household members do not need to start self-isolating.

If I need to travel internationally, can I use the Oxford COVID-19 test as proof that I am negative for the virus?

Regrettably, the University’s Early Alert Service cannot be used for this purpose. The University’s Early Alert Service uses NHS services and is not available for any purpose other than the testing of people with COVID-19 symptoms, or as a way of managing an outbreak. As such, it does not produce the correct certification accepted for international travel. If you need to have proof of a negative test for international travel you will need to take a test through a private provider. Please be aware that COVID-19 entry requirements vary from country to country, and individuals may wish to contact their airline or travel agent for further information before arranging a test. 

What should I do if I haven’t received a COVID-19 test result from the ‘test and release’ scheme?  

If you have selected to use the government’s test and release scheme and your testing provider has been unable to provide you with a test result then please contact the University’s Early Alert Service on eas-enquiries@medsci.ox.ac.uk – they will be able to advise you on the appropriate next steps to take.  

What happens if my UK visa expires before my self-isolation period ends?

If you have been advised to self-isolate and the isolation period is longer that your UK visa end date, then contact the staff immigration or student immigration team for advice on what steps to take. 

How does this service differ from Test and Trace?

The service is working in close partnership with Public Health England (PHE) and our local public health team. We will help them contain any outbreak by providing a point of liaison with colleges/departments. But if you test positive, the contact tracing itself will be undertaken by PHE, not the University Early Alert Service. We will provide advice (at the post-test consultation) to help you prepare a list of possible contacts to give to PHE if you test positive, but we will not collect any contact information from you ourselves.

How does this work with the NHS COVID-19 app?

We encourage you to use the NHS COVID-19 app, which is available to download from Google Play and the Apple App Store. It includes a number of tools to protect you, including contact tracing, local area alerts and venue check-in. Public places such as shops, cafes and bars – as well as certain public parts of the University and Colleges will be required to display QR codes for you to check-in to venues. Non NHS app users will need to sign a register.

Important: the app directs users to the NHS testing service. However, Oxford staff and students should always, where possible, use the University’s own testing service instead. You cannot use the NHS app to book a test at the University service. Instead you should a book a test via the Early Alert Service.

What about privacy?

The booking form explains how the data you provide might be used. It also provides a link to a fuller privacy statement that you can read (please note: you will need to log in via SSO). We will inform your college/department as appropriate of the results of your test in order to help them provide you with support and to take immediate action to protect others if necessary. If you test positive, we are legally obliged to inform Public Health England. They will then contact you and seek your help in tracing contacts.

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