2020 will forever be remembered as the year COVID-19 transformed our lives. But one note of optimism was the way services immediately rose to the challenge of looking after their clients in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
Research by St Mungo’s finds that at least 12,000 homeless people went without much-needed drug and alcohol treatment, but rough sleepers would be facing more stark challenges as the months went on.
The long-awaited first part of Professor Dame Carol Black’s drugs review states that a prolonged shortage of treatment funding has led to a loss of skills, expertise and capacity, while a ‘much more violent’ illegal drugs market has ‘never caused greater harm’.
As COVID-19 hits hard, the government includes drug and alcohol staff in its definition of
key workers, while services move to online models of delivery where they can and DDN takes the inevitable but painful decision
to postpone its annual service
With the sector, and the country, reeling from the impact of the pandemic, services scramble to keep up with the relentless pace of developments. ‘We had a full business continuity plan set up on the afternoon the prime minister did his first big announcement,’ Humankind’s executive operations director Anna Headley tells DDN. ‘It was out of date within an hour.’ Alcohol Change UK finds that the stress of lockdown means a fifth of daily drinkers are now consuming even more.
With around 90 per cent of rough sleepers housed in temporary accommodation, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee urges the government not to miss the chance to end rough sleeping for good. Meanwhile, Collective Voice’s Peter Keeling writes in DDN that while the sector’s swift adaptation to the COVID landscape has been hugely impressive it’s vital that developments like remote and digital delivery are seen as a ‘welcome addition’ – not a replacement.
Two parliamentary reports within a fortnight call for an overhaul of gambling regulation, with the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee slamming the ‘weak and complacent’ oversight of the industry. ‘What has emerged in evidence is a picture of a torpid, toothless regulator that doesn’t seem terribly interested in either the harms it exists to reduce, or the means it might use to achieve that,’ states committee chair Meg Hillier.
NHS Tayside provides a rare glimpse of good news when it becomes the world’s first region to effectively eliminate hep C, while Northern Ireland announces a ‘full consultation’ on whether it will follow in the footsteps of Scotland and Wales by introducing MUP.
PHE becomes a COVID fall guy, with the government announcing its abolition to make way for the new National Institute for Health Protection – but no detail on what will happen to its drugs and alcohol remit. More than 80 organisations immediately issue a statement expressing their concern in the BMJ. ‘Organisational change is difficult and can be damaging at the best of times,’ it says. ‘These are not the best of times.’
The Royal College of Psychiatrists warns that services are not equipped to deal with the ‘soaring numbers’ of people drinking at high risk levels during the pandemic, and calls for an urgent multi-million pound funding boost.
In what has become a grim annual milestone, England and Wales once again record their highest level of drug deaths at, 4,393. The pandemic had now worsened a ‘perfect storm’ of factors – including disinvestment and an ageing population – to reach a critical tipping point, warns Change Grow Live chief executive Mark Moody.
The spectacularly divisive US presidential election also sees a ‘monumental victory’ for drug policy reform as Oregon votes in favour of decriminalising personal possession of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. A year on from the launch of Middlesbrough’s heroin-assisted treatment pilot, clinical team lead Daniel Ahmed hails its ‘dramatic impact’, with 98 per cent attendance rates among long-term participants and offending levels slashed.
As the year comes to an end, and optimism about a vaccine is tempered by the reimposition of tough restrictions on much of the UK, the sector – and the country – hopes that the worst might finally be over.
DDN magazine will be back in print on Monday 1 February. Please get in touch to share your stories.