Heavy drinking during the pandemic may add £5.2billion to our NHS tab and lead to 25,000 deaths

Heavy drinking during the pandemic may add £5.2billion to our NHS tab and lead to more than 25,000 deaths, scientists claim, with prediction UK’s ‘most deprived areas’ will be hit worst

  • NHS England-funded study found heavy drinkers may stay at new high levels 
  • Over the next 20 years, it’s most likely that this will cause 7,000 extra deaths
  • ‘Heavier drinkers and those in the most deprived areas’ to be hardest-hit
  • Institute of Alcohol Studies also estimated £1.2billion added cost to the NHS 

Drinking habits picked up during the pandemic could lead to more than 25,000 deaths and cost the NHS £5.2billion, scientists have claimed.

A study commissioned by NHS England from the University of Sheffield found that over the pandemic, heavy drinkers drank more – and may never return to their previous levels.

Experts found that over-45s who were drinking at risky levels before the pandemic were the most likely to increase their drinking when Covid-19 hit.

Researchers said that in the best-case scenario – where all drinkers return to their 2019 levels of drinking this year – there would still be an extra 42,677 hospital admissions and 1,830 deaths over 20 years due to alcohol.

In the worst-case scenario, this rose to 972,382 extra admissions and 25,192 deaths, costing the NHS £5.2billion. It is most likely that, in the next 20 years, 207,597 more people than usual will be hospitalised, and 7,153 will die, costing £1.1billion.

The team said ‘heavier drinkers and those in the most deprived areas’, who already suffer the most harm related to alcohol, would be the hardest hit.

Many heavy drinkers have not returned to their lower, pre-pandemic habits (file image)

Those classed as ‘increasing risk drinkers’ consume more than 14 units a week – the UK guidelines – but no more than 35 units per week for women and 50 for men. Meanwhile, high-risk drinkers consume even more than this.

In a separate study, the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) found that if drinking does not return to pre-pandemic levels, then by 2035 there will be 147,892 extra cases of nine alcohol-related diseases – such as liver cirrhosis and breast cancer – and 9,914 more premature deaths, costing the NHS £1.2billion. There are more than 200 health conditions linked to alcohol, including seven types of cancer.

Colin Angus, who led the University of Sheffield study, said: ‘The pandemic’s impact on our drinking behaviour is likely to cast a long shadow on our health and paint a worrying picture at a time when NHS services are already under huge pressure due to treatment backlogs.’

Before the pandemic, men were much more likely to end up in hospital or die as a result of their drinking and that is still the case. But, Dr Angus added, experts were seeing a bigger increase in hospital admissions for women.

He said: ‘There’s a particular bump in women’s drinking at the point where they’re most likely to have been doing homeschooling during the initial lockdown.’ He said this ‘stressful’ burden may have driven some to drink more.

Dr Angus added that heavier drinkers may have drank more at home during lockdowns but, when pubs reopened, they did not cut down their drinking at home – so were doing both.

IAS head of research Dr Sadie Boniface said: ‘The pandemic has been bad for alcohol harm: deaths from alcohol have reached record levels, and inequalities have widened. This research should act as a wake-up call to take alcohol harm seriously as part of recovery planning from the pandemic.’

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