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Cervical screening: How it works now FAQs

Find out more about 'How it works' now in our information series.Coronavirus has changed a lot about our lives, including the experience of visiting your GP surgery.

If you have been invited for cervical screening (a smear test), you may have questions or concerns about how your appointment will work now. We hope this page gives you answers or points you in the right direction to get them.

Read our full 'How it works now' series >

 

Words we use in our FAQs

  • GP surgery. The place you usually go for your cervical screening appointment. Although we use GP surgery on this page, other health providers, such as sexual health clinics, sometimes offer cervical screening.
  • GP staff. Anyone who works at your GP surgery, including clinical staff such as nurses and doctors, and non-clinical staff such as receptionists.
  • Face covering. A piece of cloth, such as a scarf, that securely covers your nose and mouth.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE). Items your nurse or doctor may wear during your appointment to protect you and them from coronavirus, including a mask, gloves or apron.
  • Safety measures. Things your GP surgery is doing to keep you safe, including keeping people 2 metres apart and wearing masks.
  • Self-isolating. Staying at home for 10 days if you have coronavirus symptoms, or for 14 days if a member of your household has coronavirus symptoms.
  • Shielding. Following specific government guidance because you have an existing condition or circumstance that makes you extremely vulnerable to coronavirus. The guidance is different depending on where you live in the UK, which we explain in more detail further down.

Although your cervical screening test will be the same, your experience at your GP surgery may seem a little different at the moment. Your GP surgery will have safety measures in place to keep you and their staff safe, including your nurse or doctor wearing personal protective equipment (PPE)  and being asked to follow certain instructions, such as waiting outside until it’s time for your appointment or using a particular door. 

We know change like this can cause some anxiety, so below we answer more specific questions about what to expect at your cervical screening appointment and where to find out more. We are also here to talk through the changes and help answer your questions on 0808 802 8000.

Read about your cervical screening appointment >

Booking your cervical screening appointment

It depends on where in the UK you live. In this section, we explain when invitations are being sent, and to who, to help you understand when you might receive one and be able to book an appointment.

England

The Cervical Screening Programme in England is inviting people for cervical screening. GP surgeries and some sexual health clinics are doing cervical screening. If you have had your invitation, you can contact your GP surgery to book an appointment. 

Your GP surgery may not be able to offer you a cervical screening appointment straight away, as they prepare the surgery to keep you and their staff safe. If you are not able to book an appointment yet, try calling back in a few weeks.

Scotland 

The Cervical Screening Programme in Scotland is inviting people for cervical screening. The first invitations are being sent to those who:

  • were invited for cervical screening before it was paused, but who haven’t made an appointment
  • had their cervical screening appointment cancelled because of the pause.

After this, those with an earlier than usual cervical screening appointment – for example, who need a follow up cervical screening test after colposcopy – will be invited. Once those invitations are sent, those who are now due for cervical screening will be invited. 

It may take a while before you get an invitation, as the Programme catches up with those that were delayed. If you think you should have had an invitation but haven’t, it is best to contact your GP surgery. 

Once you get your invitation, you will be able to book a cervical screening appointment. Your GP surgery may not be able to offer you a cervical screening appointment straight away, as they will need to put in safety measures first. If you are not able to book an appointment yet, try calling back in a few weeks.

Read more from Public Health Scotland >

Wales

The Cervical Screening Programme in Wales is inviting people for cervical screening. The first invitations are being sent to those who:

  • had results showing human papillomavirus (HPV) with no cervical cell changes
  • need a follow up cervical screening test after colposcopy.

After this, invitations and reminders will be sent to those who were due for cervical screening but unable to get an appointment because of coronavirus, as well as those who are now due. 

It may take a while before you get an invitation, as the Programme catches up with those that were delayed. If you think you should have had an invitation but haven’t, it is best to contact your GP surgery. 

Once you get your invitation, you will be able to book a cervical screening appointment. Your GP surgery may not be able to offer you a cervical screening appointment straight away, as they will need to put in safety measures first. If you are not able to book an appointment yet, try calling back in a few weeks.

Read more from Public Health Wales >

Northern Ireland

The Cervical Screening Programme in Northern Ireland is inviting people for cervical screening. The first invitations are being sent to those who were previously referred to colposcopy, or had an inadequate result, to make sure no one is missed. 

After this, invitations will be sent to those who need a repeat cervical screening test and, eventually, to those who are due for cervical screening.

It may take a while before you get an invitation, as the Programme catches up with those that were delayed. If you think you should have had an invitation but haven’t, it is best to contact your GP surgery. 

Once you get your invitation, you will be able to book a cervical screening appointment. Your GP surgery may not be able to offer you a cervical screening appointment straight away, as they will need to put in safety measures first. If you are not able to book an appointment yet, try calling back in a few weeks.

Read more from NI Direct >

Get support

It can be confusing when different areas do different things, so we know you might have questions or want to talk things through. You can call our Helpline on 0808 802 8000 and chat with our friendly volunteers, who can help you make sense of what’s going on.

Check Helpline opening hours >

If you have had an invitation for cervical screening, you should be able to make appointment. However, your GP surgery will have to make decisions based on their situation, including availability of staff and resources, and whether they can put appropriate safety measures in place for you and their staff. 

If your appointment is delayed while these decisions are being made, your GP surgery will be doing it with your health as a priority and you can contact them again in a few weeks. We know you may be worried, so if you want to talk anything through, we are here to support you on 0808 802 8000. You can also contact your GP surgery and ask to speak with a nurse or doctor.

If you would like to go to cervical screening but are worried about coronavirus, you need to consider your personal situation. As always, it is your choice whether to go to cervical screening.

If you have had an invitation, it is now safe to go to your GP surgery for cervical screening. Your GP surgery will have put in place safety measures to keep you, and their staff, safe and well. If you want to understand exactly what your GP surgery is doing, you can contact them by phone or online.

If you are self-isolating, you should not book an appointment until you have finished isolating. If you are shielding, you will need to think about your individual situation and safety. We explain more about cervical screening when self-isolating or shielding in the following questions.

If you have symptoms of coronavirus, or have been in contact with someone who does, you should not go to your cervical screening appointment.

Symptoms of coronavirus include a new continuous cough, high temperature and loss or change to your sense of taste and smell. If you have any of these symptoms, you must self-isolate for 10 days. If a member of your household or someone you have been in contact with has these symptoms, you must self-isolate for 14 days.

If you are invited for cervical screening or have an appointment booked, contact your GP surgery and let them know you have coronavirus symptoms. They can help rearrange your appointment for after you have isolated.

Read about self-isolating on the NHS website >

If you are shielding, you will need to follow the government guidance specific to where you live:

Generally, shielding guidance says you can now leave your home, as long as you are able to keep 2 metres away from other people and follow other recommended ways to protect yourself. 

If you are invited for cervical screening and would like to attend while shielding guidance is in place, you may want to discuss your risk of coronavirus with the healthcare professional who helps you manage any conditions. It may also help to contact your GP surgery and ask what safety measures they have in place. 

We don’t know when the coronavirus pandemic will end, so if you choose not to go we can’t say how long you may be waiting for a cervical screening appointment. We do know that the guidance is there to keep you as protected from coronavirus as possible, because for you the risk of coronavirus may outweigh the risk of a delayed cervical screening appointment. If you are worried or want to understand more about this guidance, it is best to speak with a nurse or doctor at your GP surgery. Our trained volunteers are also available on 0808 802 8000 to offer emotional support and talk you through the current situation.

We don’t know when the coronavirus pandemic will end or the government guidance will change so, if you put off your cervical screening appointment, we can’t say how long you may be waiting for one. You will need to think about this potential delay and your individual situation when making your decision. You can chat with your nurse or doctor about your situation, the safety measures they have in place, and any other concerns you have. 

If you are self-isolating, book your appointment for after your isolation, to make sure you are less likely to spread coronavirus. If you are shielding, it is important to read the guidance where you live and chat with your healthcare professional to help make a decision. 

Read our blog about deciding whether to go for cervical screening >

We are here to talk through your options and help you make sense of what’s going on at the moment. Call us on 0808 802 8000 or submit your question to our panel of experts.

Use our Ask the Expert service >

If you recently booked your cervical screening appointment, it may have been cancelled. This is in part to reduce pressure on the NHS and in part to keep you, and the GP surgery staff, protected from coronavirus.

In England and Scotland, GP surgeries are now offering cervical screening appointments so you can contact your surgery and ask to book one. 

In Wales and Northern Ireland, cervical screening invitations are being sent out. If you recently had an appointment cancelled, you should get a reminder or invitation in the future – it may take a few months for the Programmes to send them out. If you know you are due for cervical screening, you can also ring your GP surgery and check if they can offer you an appointment

We know that having to wait for your appointment may make you anxious. Try to remember that the Cervical Screening Programmes, the government, and your GP surgery are weighing up the risk of a delay against the risk of coronavirus. A short delay should not cause any problems, but if you are very worried you can always contact your GP surgery for reassurance. We are also here to support you on 0808 802 8000

Symptoms of cervical cancer include bleeding between periods, after sex and after menopause, changes to vaginal discharge, pain during or after sex, and unexplained lower back or pelvic pain. If you have any of these symptoms, it is important you contact your GP surgery by phone or online to get advice. A doctor should assess you over the phone or by video call. Once they know more about your individual situation, they will decide whether they need to see you at a face-to-face appointment to do a further examination.

Read about virtual appointments >

It is important to remember that cervical cancer is rare, so the likelihood that your symptoms are caused by cervical cancer is low. However, it is still important to get medical advice. 

Read about symptoms of cervical cancer >

Your cervical screening appointment

Yes. Your GP surgery will only offer cervical screening if they are confident they can keep you and their staff safe. You can support them by following any instructions they give you, for example about arrival times or wearing a face covering.

If it is not safe for any reason, for example if you are self-isolating or shielding, your GP surgery will explain this and help you make arrangements once it is safe. 

Read our blog about deciding whether to go for cervical screening >

Your experience at your GP surgery may be slightly different to usual because they will have safety measures in place. For example, you may be asked to arrive as close to the appointment time as possible and your nurse or doctor may be wearing a mask. 

The cervical screening test itself, where your nurse or doctor takes a sample of cells from your cervix, will be exactly the same and should only take a couple of minutes. 

Read about what happens at a cervical screening appointment >

There are lots of safety measures that your GP surgery may put in place. The measures they choose will depend on different factors, including the people who use the GP surgery (for example, if there is a large vulnerable population), the size of the GP surgery, and the staff and resources the GP surgery has access to. Your GP surgery will make these decisions with your safety, and the safety of their staff, as a priority. 

We have listed some of the safety measures you might see at your appointment. You probably won’t see every measure in this list, and you may see some we don’t mention, but knowing them may help you feel prepared for your appointment:

  • Social distancing or keeping 2 metres away from other people. Your GP surgery may do this by asking people to wait for their appointments in separate places, only allowing a limited amount of people inside the surgery at a time, or spacing out chairs in the waiting room.
  • Waiting outside the GP surgery. Some GP surgeries are not using waiting rooms at the moment, so you have less chance of coming into contact with other people. Your GP surgery may ask you to wait outside, either in your vehicle or keeping 2 metres away from others. If this happens, your nurse or doctor will usually come and get you once it is time for your appointment.
  • Using a specific door or ‘zone’. Your GP surgery may have dedicated doors for different uses, such as people arriving for appointments and those leaving. Some GP surgeries are naming these doors, and sections of the surgery, ‘zones’. If this is happening at your GP surgery, they will let you know and give you instructions before your appointment.
  • Going to a different GP surgery. In some areas, GP surgeries are working together and asking people to go to another surgery for appointments. Medical records are safely transferred, so the new surgery will understand your individual situation. If this is happening with your GP surgery, they will let you know and give you instructions before your appointment.
  • Screening for coronavirus. Some GP surgeries want to understand whether you or someone close to you may have coronavirus. They may call you before your appointment to ask some questions about symptoms, or ask you once you arrive for your appointment. They may also take your temperature.
  • GP staff wearing PPE. The staff at your GP surgery will be wearing some form of PPE. The nurse or doctor who does your cervical screening should wear a mask, gloves and apron.  
  • Wearing a face covering. You are required to wear a face covering to your appointment to help protect your nurse or doctor, just as they may wear a mask to protect you.

Read our blog about different safety measures >

Face coverings are now mandatory in indoor spaces, so you will need to wear one to your appointment. A face covering is a piece of cloth that covers your nose and mouth (see picture below). A face covering aims to protect the people around you from coronavirus, just like other people wearing a face covering or mask protects you. It is important to wash your face covering once you are back home. 

Current evidence does not suggest that wearing gloves is helpful for the general public. It is better to wash your hands well and often, so you may want to take a hand sanitiser containing at least 60% alcohol to your appointment. 

Some GP surgeries are providing people with face coverings when they arrive for an appointment. You may want to ask your GP surgery about this when booking an appointment. 

Read the World Health Organisation’s guidance on face coverings >

Someone wearing a face covering

Someone wearing a cloth face covering covering their mouth and nose.

Your GP surgery should give you specific instructions about what to do once you arrive at your appointment, either when you book or a few days before your appointment. 

Some GP surgeries are not using their waiting rooms at the moment, to limit the amount of people in the building and keep you safe. You may be asked to wait outside the building, sometimes at a specific door and always keeping 2 metres away from other people. If you are asked to do this, your nurse or doctor will come and collect you when it is time for your appointment.

If you are invited to wait inside your GP surgery, they will follow government guidance and make sure everyone is kept 2 metres away from each other. If you do not want to wait inside, you can choose to wait outside – just make sure you let your nurse or doctor know where you are.

Some GP surgeries are currently allowing for longer appointment slots, usually about 30 minutes, which includes time spent waiting for your appointment and being shown to the examination room. This longer time means the surgery can follow their safety measures and make sure there aren’t too many people coming in and out of the building at once. However, the test itself, where your nurse or doctor takes a sample of cells from your cervix, should only take a few minutes.

You will still have time to ask any questions you want to ask before and after your appointment – your nurse or doctor is there to support you with any concerns. 

You may be used to seeing a few different GP staff when you to your appointment, including a receptionist. At the moment, you may only see the nurse or doctor who does your cervical screening, as many GP surgeries are currently not using the waiting room or reception to check in. 

The GP staff you see will depend on the safety measures your GP surgery has put in place. You can ask your GP surgery about this when you book your appointment. 

The nurse or doctor doing your cervical screening should be wearing a mask, gloves and apron. If your GP surgery has access to other types of PPE, such as a face visor or eye protection, they may also be wearing this.

You can ask your nurse or doctor about the PPE being used at your GP surgery, either before or at your appointment. If you are not comfortable with the PPE they are wearing, you can ask to rearrange your appointment. 

Nurses wearing PPE

Nurses standing in a GP surgery wearing personal protective equipment, or PPE, including masks, gloves and plastic aprons.

Your GP surgery will have safety measures in place to make this risk as low as possible. You can also help protect yourself and others by following these measures before, during and after your appointment:

  • Wash your hands before and after your appointment. You could also bring an alcohol-based hand sanitiser to your appointment.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a disposable tissue when you cough or sneeze, and put it in the nearest bin afterwards.
  • Keep 2 metres away from other people. This doesn’t include your nurse or doctor during the test, who will be wearing PPE to keep you and them safe.
  • Wearing a face covering.

If you are still worried and want to talk any of these measures through, give our Helpline a call on 0808 802 8000. You can also contact your GP surgery to ask about their safety measures, which may help lessen any concerns. 

Read our blog about deciding whether to go for cervical screening >

Coronavirus is a respiratory illness, which means it affects the lungs and airways. It is most commonly spread by droplets from the mouth or nose, when someone coughs or sneezes. 

Cervical screening is not considered high risk for passing on or getting coronavirus. Your nurse or doctor should be wearing PPE to make sure the risk is as low as possible. You can also keep the risk low by following any instructions your GP surgery give you about safety measures.

Making the appointment better for you

Some of the tips we usually give for your cervical screening appointment may not be possible at the moment because of coronavirus. We talk through why that is and your options below.

Read more tips for cervical screening >

Most GP surgeries are asking that you don’t take anyone to your appointment at the moment. The aim is to keep you and everyone who works there as safe and well as possible, and part of that is limiting the amount of people allowed into the surgery. 

You may be able to have an extra member of staff with you, if having another person in the room is helpful. This person is sometimes called a chaperone.

If you find cervical screening particularly hard without having a trusted person with you, or need them for assistance, tell your GP surgery. They may allow someone else to come with you.

We know not having a trusted person might be difficult. Remember your nurse or doctor is there to support you and can discuss any concerns before your appointment. We are here too, to listen before and after your appointment on 0808 802 8000.

Most GP surgeries are asking that you don’t take anyone to your appointment at the moment, including your child. The aim is to keep you and everyone who works there as safe and well as possible, and part of that is limiting the amount of people allowed into the surgery.

If you are struggling with childcare or need to have your child with you for another reason, tell your GP surgery. They may allow them to come with you.

Your GP surgery will try to accommodate you with times and days as much as possible, so let them know what works best for you. If you need to talk, we’re here to listen before and after your appointment on 0808 802 8000.

You can still ask to book a longer or double cervical screening appointment but, due to pressure on your GP surgery, it may not be possible at the moment. 

Many GP surgeries are offering cervical screening appointments on specific days and times, and will need to stick to this so they can have the right safety measures in place. Some surgeries have extended appointment times, usually to a 30-minute slot, to allow for all safety measures to be followed.

Yes, your GP surgery should still have access to different sized speculums. If you find the standard size uncomfortable, you can ask to use a smaller one.

You can still ask to put the speculum in by yourself. Your nurse or doctor should be wearing gloves, and you would both be washing your hands regularly, so the risk of passing on coronavirus would be low.  

You can ask if a specific nurse or doctor is available to do your cervical screening, but be prepared that this may not be possible. This may be because the nurse or doctor is not currently doing cervical screenings, perhaps because they are needed elsewhere, are at higher risk of coronavirus, or are not due to work at the times cervical screening appointments are being done.

If you would prefer to wait for a specific nurse or doctor before having cervical screening, you can choose to do this. However, you may be waiting for an appointment for a while, as we don’t know how long the risk and safety measures will last. 

Currently, the following specialist clinics are open for cervical screening:

  • 56 Dean Street (services for trans and/or non-binary people)
  • My Body Back (services for survivors of sexual violence, and trans and/or non-binary people)

Some specialist cervical screening clinics are not open at the moment because of coronavirus – both to make sure you and health workers are safe, and because they do not have the resource to open the clinic. 

Currently, the following specialist clinics are not offering cervical screening appointments. Keep an eye on the websites for updates:

  • CliniQ (services for trans and/or non-binary people)
  • Clinic T (services for trans and/or non-binary people)

You may choose to wait to have cervical screening once your preferred clinic is open again. If you want to talk through your options, we are here for you – call us on 0808 802 8000

Check Helpline opening hours >

Many GP surgeries do not offer cervical screening at home, and didn't even before coronavirus. It is best to contact your GP surgery and ask what they can offer, particularly if you can’t access cervical screening at the surgery due to a disability. 

Cervical screening results

You should still get your results within 4 weeks after your appointment. However, your results may be delayed – this may be because your lab is processing a lot of cervical screening tests, or they have also been asked to process coronavirus tests.

Your nurse or doctor should tell you when to expect your results at the appointment. If they didn’t, or you haven’t had your results within the expected time, you can call your GP surgery to ask when they might arrive.  

Read more about cervical screening results >

We know a delay to your cervical screening appointment may cause anxiety, especially if you have had HPV or cell changes in the past. It may help to know that HPV and cell changes take many years to develop into cervical cancer, not months, and cervical cancer itself is rare. So, while we can’t be certain, it is unlikely that these would develop within the short time that your appointment is delayed.

We know this might not take away all of your concerns, so if you want to talk any of this through, we are here for you. You can call our free Helpline on 0808 802 8000 or submit your questions to our panel of experts.

Use our Ask the Expert service >

There is no evidence to suggest you are at a higher risk of getting or becoming seriously ill with coronavirus because you have or have had HPV. But we know that, at the moment, you might be more worried about your health than usual. If you want to talk or have questions about HPV, our friendly Helpline volunteers can help – give them a call on 0808 802 8000. Or, if you have a general question about HPV, you can submit it to our Ask the Expert service.

Use our Ask the Expert service >

There is no evidence to suggest you are at a higher risk of getting or becoming seriously ill with coronavirus because of an abnormal cervical screening result or cervical cell changes. But we know that, at the moment, you might be more worried about your health than usual. If you want to talk or have questions about cell changes, our friendly Helpline volunteers can help – give them a call on 0808 802 8000. Or, if you have a general question about HPV, you can submit it to our Ask the Expert service.

Use our Ask the Expert service >

There is no evidence to suggest you are at a higher risk of getting HPV or cell changes because of coronavirus. But we know that, at the moment, you might be more worried about your health than usual. If you want to talk or have questions about HPV or cell changes, our friendly Helpline volunteers can help – give them a call on 0808 802 8000. Or, if you have a general question about HPV, you can submit it to our Ask the Expert service.

Use our Ask the Expert service >

How we can help

Whether it’s your first time or you have been before, going for cervical screening may make you anxious, especially if you are worried about coronavirus. If you have questions or need some emotional support, we are here for you before and after on 0808 802 8000

Check our Helpline opening hours >

We also have a welcoming community in our online Forum, where you can get and give support. There are lots of conversations about cervical screening, so you can choose to read existing threads or post your own messages. 

Join our Forum >

If you have general questions about cervical screening, our Ask the Expert service may be able to help. Submit your question confidentially to our panel of experts and get a tailored reply. 

Use our Ask the Expert service >

Thank you to all the experts who checked the accuracy of this information, including the Cervical Screening Programmes in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Thanks also to the volunteers who shared their personal experience to help us develop it. 

References

We write our information based on literature searches and expert review. For more information about the references we used, please contact [email protected]

Read more about how we research and write our information >

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Date last updated: 
30 Jun 2020
Date due for review: 
31 Mar 2021
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