There has been an increase in total alcohol-specific deaths, driven by an “unprecedented” annual increase in alcoholic liver disease fatalities above levels seen pre-pandemic, research by the government agency has found.
According to the report, alcohol-specific deaths increased by 20 per cent in 2020 (from 5,819 in 2019 to 6,983) and alcoholic liver disease accounted for just over 80.3 per cent of all deaths in 2020.
There was a rapid increase in the number of alcoholic liver deaths, rising by 20.8 per cent between 2019 and 2020, compared to a rise of 2.9 per cent between 2018 and 2019.
This coincides with the total amount of alcohol released for sale during the pandemic remaining similar to pre-pandemic years despite pubs, clubs and restaurants closing for about 31 weeks during national lockdowns, suggesting people were drinking more at home.
Data from a consumer purchasing panel shows just over 12.6 million extra litres of alcohol were sold in shops and supermarkets in the financial year 2020 to 2021 compared to 2019 to 2020 – an increase of 24.4 per cent.
When adult buyers were spilt into five equal-sized groups based on their level of purchasing in the two years before the first lockdown, the heaviest buying group increased their buying by 5.3 million litres of alcohol compared to 2019 to 2020 – an increase of 14.3 per cent.
Other findings of the study, Alcohol consumption and harm during the Covid-19 pandemic, included deaths from mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol increasing by 10.8 per cent between 2019 and 2020 (compared to a 1.1 per cent increase between 2018 and 2019), but hospital admissions falling.
Deaths from alcohol poisoning also increased by 15.4 per cent between 2019 and 2020 (compared to a decrease of 4.5 per cent between 2018 and 2019), but hospital admissions were again down.
Thirty-three per cent of all alcohol-specific deaths occurred in the most deprived 20 per cent.
Matt Lambert, chief executive of the Portman Group, the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK, said the pandemic created “a perfect storm” where harmful drinking was concerned.
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.
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“We urge the government to renew its focus on measures aimed at supporting these people.”
Pamela Healy OBE, 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.
“Covid-19 restrictions may have eased but now we’re starting to see the long-term effects of the pandemic in other areas of public health.
“We need urgent action to tackle the complex underlying causes of excess alcohol consumption to avoid a liver disease epidemic in the future.”
Rosanna O’Connor, director of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and justice at PHE, said: “Our research suggests 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.
“Tackling harmful drinking must be an essential part of the Covid-19 recovery plan.”
Minister for Public Health, Jo Churchill, added: “This evidence of increased alcohol-related harm during the pandemic is deeply concerning. I am committed to addressing this and widening the availability of treatment services at both a local and national level.”