In the Picture

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The parliamentary group discussion moved to Zoom for its first meeting since the crisis hit services, as DDN reports.

UK Houses of parliament
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The issue around deprivation and inequality is going to come out really strongly.’ Speaking at the Drugs, Alcohol and Justice Cross-Party Parliamentary Group’s first Zoom meeting, Karen Tyrell, executive director of Humankind, was the first of the treatment providers to give an update on the situation since COVID-19 had turned ways of working upside down.

Karen Tyrell, executive director of Humankind
Karen Tyrell, executive director of Humankind

With two-thirds of clients falling into the ‘vulnerable’ category, the organisation was pleased with the way many had switched readily to online support. Staff and commissioning teams had risen to the challenge, but one of the main worries was the drop-off in people coming into treatment – Humankind had seen a third fewer people entering services, and exits were also down as the organisation was trying to keep people in treatment during this unpredictable time.

Laura Bunt, deputy chief executive at We Are With you echoed that the move to remote working overnight had been ‘astonishing’, but that many people who weren’t accessing support were deterred by fear of putting pressure on the NHS as well as contracting COVID. There had been impressive collaboration within the sector, and some innovative developments including trialling a ‘click and collect’ model for needles and other essential harm reduction equipment. But there was also an increase in mental health issues from the boredom, loneliness and a situation that ‘has been really tough for everybody’.

‘We’ve had to put our thinking caps on,’ said WDP’s chair Yasmin Batliwala. Collaboration and communication – between staff, service users, commissioners and other services – had been key to carrying on, including more training through webinars. ‘We’re speaking more to each other than we ever did,’ she said. The crisis had shown that there were opportunities to do more online in the longer term.

Beyond the immediate crisis all the organisations were deeply worried about funding, redirection of resources and the threat of services being decommissioned.

The vital need for sector funding was underlined by Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, which had set up a monitoring network to hear about changes in the drugs market.

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release
Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release

‘We’ve already had a public health crisis with drug-related deaths,’ she said. ‘If fentanyl arrives it will be a catastrophe.’ The network had been identifying regional issues, such as fluctuations in heroin purity in the north and north east of England and reports of ‘really poor’ quality ketamine.

There was increased use of Xanax, especially among young people, increased use of psychedelics, and a reduction in MDMA use (‘not a drug for physical distancing’).

Diversion was not happening, as ‘people are holding onto their meds’ (mainly methadone) during the crisis. The move to longer-term prescribing had been helpful in making people ‘feel more in control of their treatment’.

A reduction in opportunities for shoplifting and begging had led to increased use of benzodiazepines to replace other drugs. Meanwhile patterns of policing ‘were not proportionate in lockdown’, she said, with an increase in stop and search for low level offences.

Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change UK, gave a snapshot of the effect on drinking culture. A national survey on lockdown drinking had tested the hypothesis that people would be drinking more, but findings contradicted this. While 21 per cent of people were drinking a greater volume of alcohol (‘binge drinkers’ continuing to binge), many (35 per cent) were found to be drinking less (DDN, May, page 5).

‘Some have decided to protect their immunity, take care of themselves and only drink when out,’ he said, adding that the disruption had enabled people to break drinking routines. There were five times as many people coming to Alcohol Change UK’s website looking for information and five times as many searches around alcohol and health on Google, suggesting that people were receptive to the opportunity to make healthier choices.

UK Recovery Champion, Dr Ed Day
UK Recovery Champion, Dr Ed Day

Participating in the group discussion, most felt that there were lessons for working smarter after the crisis, particularly around more intelligent prescribing options, tech solutions and web-based support.

But there was also a note of caution about moving to a world of teleconferences and losing face to face contact.

‘The recovery community has responded very strongly with some great web-based support,’ commented Dr Ed Day. ‘But it is no replacement for real face-to-face contact and some people must be falling through the cracks.’