Alcohol-related deaths spiked to their highest level since records began last year amid the first national lockdown, official figures show.
An Office for National Statistics report published today 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.
From March until August the UK was under stay-at-home orders and only allowed out for exceptional reasons in a bid to contain the first wave of coronavirus in spring. Dozens of surveys found people got drunk more than usual during the lockdown to cope with the distress of the pandemic or through boredom.
However, the ONS report showed that alcohol poisoning deaths were up only slightly in the last year. There were 353 in 2020, compared to 320 during the same time in 2019 — a rise of 10 per cent.
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.
But he noted booze-induced liver disease deaths had been creeping up over the past two decades, regardless of Covid. Professor Hunter told MailOnline: ‘It certainly looks like that deaths from alcohol related disease have increased in 2020.
‘But alcohol related deaths are rarely the result of acute alcohol poisoning. The great majority of deaths are from alcoholic liver disease which would be due to drinking alcohol for many years in the past.
‘Although there will be some increased deaths from more alcohol consumption due to anxiety over the virus and lockdown loneliness/boredom. I suspect that the big impact will have come from people with alcoholic liver disease.’
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’.
It takes about 10 years for a patient to develop cirrhosis, or liver disease, and the condition affects between 10 to 20 per cent of long-term heavy drinkers. The damage caused by cirrhosis is permanent, and it’s one of the primary ways alcoholism kills.
A person who has alcohol-related cirrhosis and does not stop drinking has a less than 50 per cent chance of living for at least five more years – which makes the increase in deaths last year unlikely to have all been at the hands of Covid.
But people who had early-stage cirrhosis and started excessive drinking again during lockdown may have accelerate their condition, experts say. The exact cause for the spike will not be fully understood until more analysis has been done.
Ben Humberstone, deputy director of health analysis and life events at the ONS said: ‘Today’s data shows that in the first three quarters of 2020, alcohol-specific deaths in England and Wales reached the highest level since the beginning of our data series, with April to September, during and after the first lockdown, seeing higher rates compared to the same period in previous years.
The ONS report added: ‘Since 2001, rates of alcohol-specific deaths have been generally higher in the first quarter of each year.
‘As such, despite the rate in Q1 of 2020 being the highest seen since 2001, the Q1 rate of 2020 was not statistically different compared with that in the same quarter in 2019.
‘On the other hand, Q2 and Q3 had statistically significantly higher rates in 2020 than any other rate in the same quarter since 2001. Both male and female rates increased significantly in Q2 and Q3 compared with the same quarters in 2019.’
Commenting on the figures, Julie Breslin, from the drug, alcohol and mental health charity We Are With You, said: ‘The number of people in treatment for an alcohol issue has fallen by nearly one fifth since 2013/14.
‘At the same time we know that around four out of five dependent drinkers aren’t accessing any kind of support.
‘Sadly, these statistics show the impact of what happens when the majority of people with an issue with alcohol aren’t accessing treatment or support, especially in a country with such a heavy drinking culture as the UK.’
She added: ‘While these statistics don’t include the impact of the pandemic, we’ve seen this picture become exacerbated in the past year.
‘Many older adults are unable to see their loved ones or friends, and are drinking more as a way to cope with increased loneliness, isolation and anxiety.
‘Our research showed that at the end of last year more than one in two over-50s were drinking at a level that could cause health problems now or in the future, with nearly one in four classed as high risk or possibly dependent.’
Nuno Albuquerque, head of treatment at the UK Addiction Treatment Group, added: ‘We must remember that what we’re talking about here aren’t just figures; they’re people.
‘They’re mums, dads, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues and neighbours who have lost their lives to alcohol; a substance so widely accepted and almost encouraged in this country but one so controlling, addictive and, ultimately, life-threatening.
‘Unfortunately, we expect these figures to rise even further after the difficulties we all faced in 2020.
‘We know first-hand how many people have struggled with their relationship with alcohol since the Covid-19 crisis. Our treatment facilities across the country admit more clients for alcohol addiction than any other substance and all our beds are almost full.’
Experts have warned people who get a Covid-19 vaccine should avoid drinking alcohol two weeks before or after getting the jab because it can reduce the body’s immune response to the injection.
Alcohol changes the make-up of the trillions of microorganisms that live in the gut which play an important role in preventing the invasion of bacteria and viruses.
This leads to the damage of immune cells in the blood, known as white blood cells, including lymphocytes, which send out antibodies to attack viruses.
Immunologist Professor Sheena Cruickshank, at the University of Manchester, said the reduction in lymphocytes could lower the effectiveness of the body’s immune response.
Therefore Professor Cruickshank has urged people to avoid alcohol around the time of their Covid-19 vaccination.
Professor Cruickshank said: ‘You need to have your immune system working tip-top to have a good response to the vaccine, so if you’re drinking the night before, or shortly afterwards, that’s not going to help.’