Alcohol-specific deaths increased by 20.8 per cent last year, according to PHE. There were 6,983 deaths in 2020, compared to 5,819 in 2019 – despite pubs, clubs and restaurants being closed for much of the year as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns.
The rising death rate has been driven by ‘an unprecedented annual increase in alcoholic liver disease deaths’, says the agency, with alcoholic liver disease accounting for more than 80 per cent of all 2020’s alcohol-specific deaths. PHE’s findings reflect previous reports that have shown increased levels of higher-risk drinking at home, with consumer purchasing panel data showing a 24 per cent increase in alcohol sales in shops and supermarkets in the financial year 2020-21. ‘Those that typically bought the most alcohol pre-pandemic bought a lot more once the first lockdown happened’, says PHE.
Deaths from mental and behavioural disorders as a result of alcohol were also up by ten per cent between 2019 and 2020, with alcohol poisoning deaths up 15 per cent. A third of all alcohol specific deaths were in the most deprived 20 per cent of areas, with the North East once again recording the highest increase.
‘Our research suggests that lockdown has affected heavy drinkers the most and that they are drinking more,’ said PHE’s director of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and justice, Rosanna O’Connor. ‘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.’ Tackling harmful drinking needed to be ‘an essential part of the COVID-19 recovery plan’, she stated.
While the findings were ‘very concerning’ they mirrored what callers to the British Liver Trust’s helpline had been saying, said the trust’s chief executive, Pamela Healy. ‘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. Alarmingly, these new statistics show that those who come from the most deprived areas of the country are also disproportionately affected.’
Rising alcohol harm had been ‘a devastating consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic’, added Alcohol Health Alliance UK chair, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore. ‘Increased drinking among some of the population, rising hospital admissions for liver disease and the highest level of deaths caused directly by alcohol since records began are cause for serious alarm. 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.’
Alcohol consumption and harm during the COVID-19 pandemic available at www.gov.uk