There has been a “shocking” increase in the harm caused by alcohol during the pandemic, with a 20% rise in deaths caused directly by drinking, new figures show.
A report from Public Health England (PHE) on people’s habits in England in 2020 found that people were drinking more as Covid-19 took hold while alcohol misuse also increased.
Deaths caused directly by the misuse of alcohol rose by a fifth in 2020 (from 5,819 in 2019 to 6,983), according to the new study.
There was a rapid increase in the number of alcoholic liver deaths, rising by 21% between 2019 and 2020, compared to a rise of 3% between 2018 and 2019.
Other findings include:
– Deaths from mental and behavioural problems due to alcohol increased by 11% between 2019 and 2020 (compared to a 1.1% increase between 2018 and 2019). However, hospital admissions were down.
– Deaths from alcohol poisoning increased by 15% between 2019 and 2020 (compared to a decrease of 4.5% between 2018 and 2019). But, again, hospital admissions fell as people stopped seeking NHS care.
– A third of deaths directly caused by drinking occurred in the most deprived areas. The North East saw the biggest rise in the death rate out of all regions, reaching a peak rate of 28.4 deaths per 100,000 population in July 2020.
– Despite pubs, clubs and restaurants closing for around 31 weeks during lockdowns, the total amount of alcohol released for sale (meaning that tax had been paid and it could be bought) during the pandemic was still similar to pre-pandemic years, suggesting people were drinking more at home.
– In shops and supermarkets, based on roughly 30,000 people who took part in a consumer panel, just over 12.6 million extra litres of alcohol were sold in the financial year 2020 to 2021 compared to 2019 to 2020 (a rise of a quarter).
– All types of alcohol saw increases but these were largest for beer (up 31%), followed by spirits (26%), wine (20%) and cider (18%).
PHE found that those people who tended to drink the most before the pandemic “bought a lot more once the first lockdown happened”.
Those in the top fifth for buying the most drink increased their buying by 5.3 million litres of alcohol (an increase of 14% when comparing 2019 to 2020).
Experts also found that people kept up their increased and higher risk drinking for much of 2020 after an initial surge during the first lockdown.
When PHE compared March 2020 to March 2021, there was a 59% rise in people reporting that they were drinking at increasing and higher-risk levels (50 units a week for men, 35 units a week for women).
However, there are now signs that people are returning to drinking levels that are similar to those seen before the pandemic, according to the study.
Rosanna O’Connor, director of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and justice at PHE, said: “Our research suggests that lockdown has affected heavy drinkers the most and that they are drinking more.
“Liver disease is currently the second leading cause of premature death in people of working age and this is only set to get worse if the Covid-19 pandemic results in a long-term increase in drinking.”
Dr Katherine Severi, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: “This report highlights the shocking increase in alcohol harm following the Covid-19 pandemic.
“A 20% increase in deaths directly caused by alcohol must be an alarming wake-up call for Government to act.
“The evidence to support policy action is clear: tackling ultra-cheap alcohol through minimum unit pricing (MUP) and alcohol duty reforms will save lives and reduce costs for the NHS.
“Scotland has already witnessed a reduction in alcohol-specific deaths following the introduction of MUP in 2018, and with Wales adopting this measure it makes no sense for England to be left behind.”
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said: “Tackling alcohol harm must be central to the Covid-19 recovery plan if we are to curb this growing health crisis.
“We are concerned about the increase in the consumption of wine and spirits over the last year.
“Cheap, strong drinks are linked to the highest harms. The ongoing alcohol duty review is an opportunity for the Treasury to ensure that stronger drinks, like spirits, always cost more than weaker drinks, in order to decrease consumption and protect our health.”
Public health minister Jo Churchill said the evidence of increasing harm during the pandemic “is deeply concerning”.
She added: “I am committed to addressing this and widening the availability of treatment services at both a local and national level.
“The new Office for Health Promotion will spearhead our efforts to improve treatment and level up outcomes.
“Over the last year, providers have continued to support and treat people misusing alcohol and we are backing local authorities, who know their communities best, with over £3.3 billion in 2021 to 2022 to spend on public health services including alcohol treatment.”
Pamela Healy, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said: “These findings are very concerning but, sadly, they mirror what we have been hearing on our helpline throughout the pandemic.
“Stress, loneliness and the lack of access to alcohol support services have resulted in many people drinking more alcohol and putting their livers at risk.”
Dr Emily Finch, vice-chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “People not being able to access addiction services or being concerned about going to hospital because of the pandemic have clearly played a part in the sharp rise in deaths by alcohol-related liver disease.
“We desperately need properly-funded and staffed addiction services to ensure people who are dependent on alcohol and at risk of serious physical illness, like liver disease, can access the specialist support they need.
“Alcohol deaths will continue to rise significantly unless the Government sees alcohol dependence as the public health crisis that it is and fast-tracks the expansion of addiction services as part of its Covid recovery plans.”
Matt Lambert, chief executive of the Portman Group, which represents the alcohol industry, said the “moderate majority continued to drink the same, or less than before” while the small minority who were already drinking at heavier rates “increased their drinking with tragic consequences”.
He added: “Covid-19 restrictions appear to have cut off social and professional support to highest harm drinkers, or deterred these most vulnerable people from seeking help in the first instance.
“We urge the Government to renew its focus on measures aimed at supporting these people.”