In October 2020, we published a report - The Impact of COVID on Drug and Alcohol Misuse - which you can download here. In this report, we analysed both public data and our own to establish what effect COVID-19 was having on the misuse of drugs and alcohol - and vice versa.
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The results highlighted how alcohol sales increased and drinking behaviours changed between the implementation of the UK’s first lockdown in March 2020, and our report publication in October. We also highlighted how vital it was that drug and alcohol services remain operational throughout the pandemic, and testing should continue in order to be able to deal with problem drinking earlier rather than later.
Now, provisional data released by the Office for National Statistics reveals a potentially worrying correlation between alcohol-specific deaths and the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, we analyse what the data shows, and what this means for the future.
What does the new ONS data show?
This provisional data from the ONS covers England and Wales, revealing “quarterly rates and numbers of deaths caused by diseases known to be a direct consequence of alcohol misuse”.
Between January and September 2020, this provisional data revealed that alcohol-related causes were responsible for 5,460 deaths - a 16.4% increase on the same time period in 2019. This increase led to the highest peak in alcohol-specific death rates since the ONS began collecting this data in 2001: 12.8 deaths per 100,000 people across each of the three quarters covered.
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ONS spokesman, Ben Humberstone, describes how the April to September period, covering both during and after the first lockdown, saw higher alcohol-specific death rates compared with the same period in previous years. He says: "The reasons for this are complex and it will take time before the impact the pandemic has had on alcohol-specific deaths is fully understood."
The ONS data shows that, while there was no significant difference in Q1 2020 rates compared with Q1 in previous years, both Q2 and Q3 2020 showed significantly higher alcohol-specific mortality rates than in any other year. Demographically, there were some differences.
Which demographics were most affected?
As in previous years, alcohol-specific mortality amongst males was twice as high for females in the first three quarters of 2020. However, the data does show variation by age and region.
Q2 saw significantly higher rates amongst those aged 30 to 49, while Q3 saw increased incidence amongst the 40 to 69 age group. In addition, Q2 saw rises in alcohol-specific deaths in the North East and London compared with 2019, while in Q3, cases were significantly higher in the South West of England.
What does this data mean for the future?
In their report, the ONS highlights their definition of alcohol-specific deaths includes only deaths which are wholly attributable to alcohol misuse. With the majority of these being longer-term, chronic conditions relating to continued misuse of alcohol, they state “the increase in deaths in 2020 is more likely to be attributed to those with previous history of alcohol misuse or dependency”.
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In an article for Reuters, Chief Executive of the charity Alcohol Change UK, Richard Piper, stated he believed the cause of this rise was a failure by drinkers to seek help because of COVID-19, or an increase in drinking amongst those who were already heavy drinkers. He said: “What we do know is that this crisis is worsening. Like many of the effects of the pandemic, alcohol deaths have not been felt equally across our communities, with deaths significantly higher in more deprived areas”.
What this all shows is how vital it is to ensure that potential problem drinkers are recognised as early as possible, and given access to the appropriate support. This highlights the importance of alcohol testing where required.
As the ONS report reveals, “the COVID-19 pandemic has had little impact on how long it has taken to register alcohol-specific deaths”. Similarly, we have continued to provide drug and alcohol testing throughout the various lockdowns in 2020 to the current time, with no drop in service levels. What’s more, we have also been able to add extra service enhancements, such as becoming the first UK lab to test for new cut-offs for alcohol abstinence.
Using a combination of PEth testing and hair alcohol testing, it is possible to monitor both recent and long term alcohol usage. With alcohol-specific deaths on the rise, these two tools could prove invaluable in helping problem drinkers to be rehabilitated as the pandemic and its effects continue.
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