Following the February release of provisional data on deaths from alcohol-specific causes for the first three quarters of 2020, the ONS has now published figures for the final quarter of this year. The total number of deaths in 2020 stands at 7,423 – a 19.6 per cent increase from 2019 and the highest annual total in 20 years.
While the figures may change by the time they are published as official figures and – in the words of the ONS – “there will be many complex factors” behind the elevated figures since April 2020, the timing of this increase alongside the Covid-19 lockdown conditions is extremely concerning. However, the increase should be seen in the historical context of a much longer-term trend of increased mortality developing over the past two decades.
Significant cuts to funding for substance misuse treatment and recovery services have been experienced over the past decade, with a 40 per cent reduction in treatment budgets in some parts of the country. The unmet need among people who are dependent on alcohol remains significantly high; the latest estimates suggest just 1 in 5 adults who would benefit from treatment are accessing it.
The imminent publication of the second part of Dame Carol Black’s independent review of drugs (sure to make major recommendations on treatment and recovery services) and the transfer of public health improvement functions to a new Office for Health Promotion will bring substantial change to our field. It is absolutely vital that alcohol harms are not left unaddressed and that today’s shocking figures – and the untold human tragedy they represent – are not forgotten. The recent injection of £80m into the system has been a welcome relief; a multi-year settlement in this year’s Comprehensive Spending Review for drug and alcohol treatment and recovery services will enable further vital work to support people, and reduce deaths.