Alcohol-related deaths spiked to their highest level since records began amid the first national lockdown in 2020, official figures show.
An Office for National Statistics report found alcohol was a contributing factor in 5,460 fatalities in England and Wales between January and September, a rate of 12.8 per 100,000.
This was a 17 per cent rise on the same period in 2019, when there were 3,732 deaths — 11 per 100,000. It was also the highest number since the ONS started tallying alcohol-related deaths in 2001.
Dozens of 2020 surveys found people got drunk more than usual during the lockdown to cope with the distress of the pandemic or through boredom.
The majority of last year’s deaths (4,355) were from liver disease, which is caused by excessive alcohol abuse over many years. This was 16 per cent higher than the same period in 2019, when there were 3,732.
Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, said it was possible some of the increase was caused by excessive drinking during lockdown speeding up the deaths. ‘If people with liver disease start drinking again, especially binge drinking, that would certainly be very bad for their liver and could lead to Liver failure and subsequent death,’ he added.
Other scientists have said the likely cause for the spike was liver disease patients struggling to access healthcare when the NHS shut down the majority of its services to make way for Covid patients during the first wave.
The ONS said only 78 deaths involved Covid. A spokesperson said the reasons behind the spike ‘are complex and it will take time before the impact the pandemic has had on alcohol-specific deaths is fully understood’.
Before lockdown last March, an estimated 3.4 per cent of adults were downing more than 50 units of alcohol a week, the equivalent of around 1,500,000 people.
By December, this had risen to 5.7 per cent, or more than 2,520,000 people, according to analysis of a YouGov poll for Public Health England.
Addiction expert Dr Niall Campbell, based at the Priory’s Roehampton Hospital in south-west London, added: ‘Alcohol sales have soared under lockdown, and spurred seriously problematic drinking for thousands of people who are on a collision course with alcohol.
‘One patient said to me that the expression ‘working from home’ had just become ‘drinking from home’. A starting time of 6pm for opening a bottle of wine had become 5pm, then 4pm, 3pm and then lunchtime, with people drinking throughout the afternoon.
‘Financial worries, juggling work with home-schooling, relationship issues, anxiety about Covid-19, boredom, and devastating isolation for many of the over 60s, have left people ‘self-medicating’ with alcohol to a significant degree.
‘Drinking at home is easy and cheap, and there’s often no one to encourage you to curb your intake. But alcohol is not a coping mechanism. Also worrying is that “alcohol-specific deaths” – those which are a direct consequence of alcohol misuse – do not include very many deaths where alcohol may be a related issue, such as certain cancers, and therefore the figure is likely to be a significant underestimate of the issue.’