Deaths in England from liver disease linked to excessive drinking jumped by an unprecedented 21 per cent last year, when the coronavirus pandemic struck, as the heaviest drinkers consumed more alcohol at home, official data showed on Thursday.
Pubs, clubs and restaurants were closed for most of the year, but the total volume of alcohol sold barely fell, suggesting people switched to drinking at home instead, Public Health England said.
Consumer data showed a 24 per cent increase in the litres of alcohol sold in shops and supermarkets during the year to the end of March 2021, compared with the previous 12 months.
The increase in purchases was not split evenly. People who bought more alcoholic drinks before the pandemic increased their purchases by a greater percentage than those who previously bought less.
“Our research suggests that lockdown has affected heavy drinkers the most and that they are drinking more,” Rosanna O’Connor, PHE’s director of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and justice, said in a statement.
Liver disease was the second-biggest cause of premature death for British adults of working age, she added.
Total alcohol-related deaths rose by 20 per cent last year to 6,983 in 2020, up from 5,819 in 2019. Liver disease accounted for 80 per cent of these deaths and rose 21 per cent compared with a 3 per cent rise the year before. Deaths due to alcohol poisoning increased by 15 per cent after falling 5 per cent in 2019.
The proportion of people who admitted drinking at what British health authorities consider dangerous levels – 50 UK units a week for men, and 35 for women – was 59 per cent higher in March 2021 than in March 2020, before the first lockdown.
One UK unit of alcohol is equivalent to 10 millilitres of pure alcohol, with around 10 units in a typical bottle of wine and two to three units in a pint of beer.
Commenting on the report, Matt Lambert, chef executive of the Portman Group, the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK, noted that the moderate majority, 88 per cent of UK drinkers, were consuming the same, less or had stopped drinking alcohol altogether.
“This report’s finding on pandemic drinking behaviour is consistent with many others. The moderate majority continued to drink the same, or less than before, while it was mainly the small minority who were already drinking at heavier rates who increased their drinking with tragic consequences – this was shown in the Portman Group and other research which the PHE cited,” he said.
Lambert pointed out that the pandemic restrictions appear to have cut off social and professional support to highest harm drinkers, or deterred these most vulnerable people from seeking help in the first instance.
“We urge the government to renew its focus on measures aimed at supporting these people,” he added.
(With inputs from Reuters)