- Deaths linked to alcohol misuse in 2020 were up 16%, per stats from England and Wales.
- The causes are uncertain, but it could be related to the stress caused by the pandemic.
- More services are needed to support those with alcohol dependence, said one expert.
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The number of deaths linked to alcohol misuse spiked in much of the UK during 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic and widespread lockdowns, new data shows.
The figures, from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), are for England and Wales, which make up around 90% of the UK population.
They show that alcohol-linked deaths were up 16.4% in 2020 compared to 2019. It is the sharpest increase since records began in 2001.
Experts have warned that changes in the way people consumed alcohol during the pandemic could lead to problems for those who are more susceptible to alcohol-use disorder.
A survey of 83 countries published in the journal BMJ Open found that 36% of people increased their alcohol intake while taking measures to avoid COVID-19.
Ben Humberstone, deputy director of Health Analysis and Life Events at the ONS, said that it was unclear exactly what is driving the increase.
Another expert, Professor Linda Bauld of the University of Edinburgh, suggested some causes.
In comments to the Science Media Centre, she said chronic disease could be exacerbated by increased drinking linked to stress from the pandemic, ultimately leading to more deaths.
She also noted that people with an alcohol-use disorder may not be receiving the right medical case, either through reluctance to visit a hospital during the pandemic, or because those services were reduced.
More delayed consequences of alcohol abuse, such as cancer, could also occur increase in the future, she noted.
Professor Julia Sinclair, Chair of the Addictions Faculty at the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists, told the Science Media Center that the high-rate of alcohol-related deaths is “as tragic as it is avoidable.”
She argued that the UK National health Service should be better equipped to deal with the rise in people drinking at a dangerous levels.
The levels of alcohol-dependent deaths have been on a steady increase since the ONS began recording data in 2001. Its figures show that 2019 was the second-worst year for alcohol-dependent deaths on record.
Health experts have been calling for funding cuts to services to be reversed to provide more support for those with alcohol dependence.
“These are preventable excess deaths and are a stark reminder that there are indirect harms from this pandemic beyond the immediate threat to health and life from COVID-19. As we look ahead, it is going to be essential to remember that public health is not just about dealing with infectious diseases” Bauld told the Science Media Center.