Deaths caused by alcohol products have reached a record high in 2020 in England and Wales during the coronavirus pandemic. According to data released by the Office for National Statistics, there were 5460 deaths in the first three quarters of 2020 (January to September). This is a 16.4% increase compared to the same time period in 2019.
The alcohol-specific death rate reached its peak in 2020 since the data series began in 2001 with a 12.4 deaths per 100,000 people. The rates for the second and third quarters were higher in 2020 than in any year since 2001. The death rate was double for men compared to women.
Rising alcohol problems during COVID-19
Movendi International followed the changes in alcohol use trends in the UK. According to data from the ongoing COVID-19 Social Study by University College London (UCL), over one third (34.4%) of people reported a change in their alcohol use during COVID-19 in 2020. Out of those nearly half (49.1%) say they are currently having more alcohol compared to March/April 2020.
Meanwhile special concern arose about older adults consuming more alcohol since a YouGov poll found that adults between 55 to 64 years and older increased their alcohol use the most during the pandemic. A recent study which looked into 366 patients aged 55 to 74 who had been referred to NHS mental health services found similar results. Half the patients were referred prior to the first lockdown in UK and half after.
The study found among this age group,
- dependent alcohol use increased from 19% before lockdown to 28% after, and
- having alcohol four or more times within a week increased from 30% before to 39% after.
It is a problem that needs to be addressed urgently as older people are at higher risk of harm from alcohol. According to a report released by the IOGT-NTO Movement, the increased sensitivity to alcohol in old age combined with the ageing process can increase risk of disease and accidents. It is now more than ever necessary during the pandemic to have a healthy ageing population, since risk of complications from coronavirus is higher with other chronic conditions and healthcare capacity is limited.
The ongoing pandemic has brought into sharp focus the issues with England’s response to alcohol problems. There is a desperate need for better funding to stop lives being lost to alcohol and other substance use disorders according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Alcohol and other drug treatment services in England need more funding to support people to recover from alcohol problems, which have increased during the pandemic and lockdown.
Since England does not have a minimum unit price (MUP) on alcohol products like in Scotland and Wales, the alcohol industry sells their products at very cheap prices to increase consumption and private profits at the cost of the health of communities and society.
Alcohol industry cashes in on the pandemic
Meanwhile the alcohol industry has been cashing in on the coronavirus public health crisis. Big Alcohol has turned COVID-19 into the world’s largest marketing campaign. In the UK, on-demand alcohol delivery was expanded during the pandemic, thus increasing alcohol availability and fueling alcohol problems. Major concerns around on-demand alcohol delivery are the inability to protect minors through effective age verification and to protect people who are already intoxicated through avoiding selling and delivering more alcohol to them.
Solutions are at hand and as a first step Alcohol Change UK called for an update to alcohol licensing laws to tackle the alcohol delivery issues. Additionally, a floor price for alcohol, as implemented in Scotland and Wales is an important tool to eliminate the cheapest alcohol products and in this way help reduce alcohol-specific deaths.
Alcohol policy solutions are important in the COVID-19 context as well. One fact that is hidden by the alcohol industry is that alcohol weakens immunity and makes people more susceptible to infections. This and many other reasons are why the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended restrictions on alcohol during lockdowns.
Prioritizing alcohol policy solutions at the national policy level is a key strategy to prevent alcohol deaths and is integral to building back better after the pandemic.
[This article was updated on May 6, 2021 as per new information from Daily Mail]
Office for National Statistics: “Quarterly alcohol-specific deaths in England and Wales: 2001 to 2019 registrations and Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) to Quarter 3 (July to Sept) 2020 provisional registrations“