> Lockdown drinking increase could cause 25,000 excess deaths in England | Alcohol

Lockdown drinking increase could cause 25,000 excess deaths in England | Alcohol

Up to 25,000 more people than usual could die over the next 20 years in England as a result of heavy drinking habits that began during the Covid lockdowns, two studies have found. They could also result in almost 1m more hospital admissions and cost the NHS more than £5bn.

The NHS-funded findings prompted fresh calls from health experts for more determined government action to reduce alcohol-related harm by tackling its price, availability and promotion.

People who already drank moderately when the UK went into its first lockdown in March 2020 generally reduced their intake of alcohol while government-ordered restrictions on social mixing were in place. However, many of those who already drank heavily consumed even more at a time when pubs, restaurants and other places that sell alcohol were closed, leading to a sudden spike in deaths.

excess alcohol deaths chart
excess alcohol deaths chart

Both studies analysed the potential long-term impact of the trend towards heavier drinking. One, by academics at the University of Sheffield, found that under a worst-case scenario – in which those people keep drinking at Covid-elevated levels – an estimated 25,192 extra deaths could occur, along with 972,382 hospital admissions and a cost of £5.2bn to the NHS by 2042. It was based on modelling of 45 different alcohol-related health conditions.

The other, by the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS), yielded more conservative results. The IAS, in conjunction with Lumen Health, found that, again under the most pessimistic scenario, England may see 9,914 extra premature deaths and 147,892 additional cases of people left seriously ill with nine drink-related conditions, including breast cancer, liver cirrhosis and high blood pressure.

“These figures highlight that the pandemic’s impact on our drinking behaviour is likely to cast a long shadow on our health and paint a worrying picture at a time when NHS services are already under huge pressure due to treatment backlogs,” said Colin Angus, a senior research fellow at Sheffield, who led its study.

Sadie Boniface, the IAS’s head of research, said: “Changes in alcohol use during the pandemic led to a 20% rise in alcohol-specific deaths in England in 2020, and the worrying trends continue.

“Our study projects that if alcohol consumption stays at current levels … inequalities in deaths from alcohol will also grow wider than they already are. The results of the studies should be a wake-up call to take action.”

Alcohol caused 10,700 deaths and 640,000 hospital admissions in England, and cost the NHS £2.7bn to treat, in 2019, the year before Covid struck.

Elinor Jayne, director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, said: “It is extremely alarming to see the devastating predicted scenarios of increased alcohol harms in England, particularly the projected increase in premature deaths and widening of existing health inequalities.”

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Scotland, where alcohol-related deaths rose by 17% in 2020, had seen increases in both solitary drinking and drinking at home during the lockdowns. “It’s likely that those who already drank at hazardous levels before the pandemic increased their consumption rates,” she added.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care declined to comment directly on the findings. They said only: “Alcohol misuse can ruin lives and destroy families, and we are committed to supporting those most at risk.

“It is misleading to say the UK does not have a strategy for dealing with alcohol-related harms. We published a 10-year plan for tackling drug and alcohol-related harms in 2022, backed by £532m of new funding over three years to rebuild drug and alcohol misuse treatment and recovery services in England as well as increase the availability of inpatient detoxification beds.”

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