Increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic, particularly amongst heavy drinkers, is likely driving an unprecedented acceleration in alcohol-related liver disease deaths.
Public Health England has published the trends in alcohol consumption and harm since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings show an increase in total alcohol-specific deaths, driven by an unprecedented annual increase in alcohol-related liver disease deaths above levels seen before the pandemic.
Despite pubs, clubs and restaurants closing for approximately 31 weeks during the national lockdowns, the total amount of alcohol released for sale during the pandemic was still similar to the pre-pandemic years, which suggests people were drinking more at home.
Data from a consumer purchasing panel show that in shops and supermarkets, just over 12.6 million extra litres of alcohol were sold in the financial year 2020/21 compared to 2019/20 (a 24.4% increase). Those that typically bought the most alcohol pre-pandemic bought a lot more once the first lockdown happened. When adult buyers were spilt into five equal sized groups based on their level of purchasing in the two years before the first lockdown, the heaviest buying group increased their buying by 5.3 million litres of alcohol compared to 2019/20 (an increase of 14.3%).
The findings reflect the survey data published on PHE’s Wider Impacts of COVID-19 on Health (WICH) dashboard that also shows an increase in increasing and higher risk drinking following the first national lockdown. This was maintained over much of 2020, but from 2021 onwards shows signs of returning to levels more similar to before the pandemic. Comparing March 2020 and March 2021, there was a 58.6% increase of people reporting that they are drinking at increasing and higher-risk levels (50 units a week for men, 35 units a week for women). Other published reports analysing surveys suggest that it is those drinking the heaviest before the pandemic that are more likely to report increasing their drinking.
The increased consumption of alcohol during the pandemic has occurred alongside increases in deaths. Alcohol-specific deaths increased by 20.0% in 2020 (from 5,819 in 2019 to 6,983) and alcohol-related liver disease accounted for just over 80.3% of all deaths in 2020. There was a rapid increase in the number of alcohol-related liver deaths, rising by 20.8% between 2019 and 2020, compared to a rise of 2.9% between 2018 and 2019.
"We need urgent action to tackle the complex underlying causes of excess alcohol consumption."
Pamela Healy OBE, Chief Executive of the British Liver Trust, said: “These findings are very concerning but, sadly, they mirror what we have been hearing on our Helpline throughout the pandemic. Stress, loneliness and the lack of access to alcohol support services have resulted in many people drinking more alcohol and putting their livers at risk. Alarmingly, these new statistics show that those who come from the most deprived areas of the country are also disproportionately affected.
“Covid-19 restrictions may have eased but now we’re starting to see the long-term effects of the pandemic in other areas of public health. We need urgent action to tackle the complex underlying causes of excess alcohol consumption to avoid a liver disease epidemic in the future.
“We all know someone who is at risk of becoming one of these statistics - more than one in five adults in the UK drink alcohol in way that could harm their liver. You can find out if you’re at risk by taking the British Liver Trust’s online quiz.”
Other findings include:
- Deaths from mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol increased by 10.8% between 2019 and 2020 (compared to a 1.1% increase between 2018 and 2019) but hospital admissions were down
- Deaths from alcohol poisoning increased by 15.4% between 2019 and 2020 (compared to a decrease of 4.5% between 2018 and 2019) but hospital admissions were down
- 33% of all alcohol-specific deaths occurred in the most deprived 20%
- The North East has the biggest increase in death rate out of all regions, reaching a peak rate of 28.4 deaths per 100,000 population in July 2020 (79.7% higher than the baseline rate in 2018 and 2019 combined)
- The rate of unplanned hospital admissions per 100,000 population for alcohol-related liver disease increased by 3.2% between 2019 and 2020, though the rate of total alcohol-specific admissions decreased by 3.2% (which mirrors the direction of all hospital admissions irrespective of cause)