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Addiction services unable to cope as heavy drinking rises during COVID pandemic

Soaring numbers of people drinking riskily during the COVID-19 pandemic has left addiction services ill equipped to provide treatment and support, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned.

The College’s new analysis of Public Health England’s latest data on the indirect effects of Covid-19 found that over 8.4 million people are now drinking at higher risk, up from just 4.8 million in February. Addiction services must receive a multi-million-pound funding boost in the upcoming spending review, the College warns.

Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Addiction services have been starved of funding in recent years meaning many are not able to treat and care for the huge numbers of people who are drinking at high risk.”

The Public Health England data on the wider impacts of Covid-19 shows nearly 1 in 5 (19%) adults drinking at higher risk in June, up from 1 in 10 (10.8%) in February.
The College calculates that when applied to the population of England some 8,410,045 people are now drinking at higher risk.

The surge in higher risk drinking comes at a time when more people addicted to opiates are seeking help from addiction services. The National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS) statistics show 3,459 new adult cases in April 2020 - up 20% from 2,947 in the same month last year - the highest numbers in April since 2015.

However, severe cuts made to addiction services since 2013/14 mean the estimated 8.4 million higher risk drinkers and the hundreds of additional people with an opiate addiction needing help could miss out on life-saving treatment.

Psychiatrists are urging the government to use the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review to reverse the cuts and enable local authorities to work towards investing £374 million into adult services so they can cope with the increased need for treatment.

There were 4,359 drug-related deaths in England and Wales in 2018, the highest on record, while the 1.26 million alcohol-related hospital admissions in 2018/19 were also the highest on record.

The College’s recently published Next Steps for Funding Mental Health Care in England: Prevention report also makes the case for an additional £43m for children’s drug and alcohol services and £30m for new buildings and updates to existing ones - also known as capital projects.

Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, added: “More lives will be needlessly lost to addiction unless the government acts now and commits to substantial investment in public health, including adult addiction services, in the Spending Review.

“I urge the government to implement the recommendations in our report which would see mental health services expand to be the biggest in Europe, with a much-needed focus on tackling inequalities.”

Responsibility for the delivery and funding of addiction services was taken out of the NHS and given to local authorities following legislative changes in 2012.


Funding for addiction services in England for adults and young people combined fell by £234 million (25%) in real terms from 2013/14 to 2018/19, the College warns.

The report warns that people with alcohol use disorder are more likely to develop serious complications if they catch Covid-19, including acute respiratory distress syndrome. People using drugs such as heroin and benzodiazepines are also more vulnerable to the virus.

Professor Julia Sinclair, Chair of the College’s Addictions Faculty, said: “Covid-19 has shown just how stretched, under-resourced and ill-equipped addiction services are to treat the growing numbers of vulnerable people living with this complex illness.

“There are now only 5 NHS inpatient units in the country and no resource anywhere in my region to admit people who are alcohol dependent with co-existing mental illness.

“Drug-related deaths and alcohol-related hospital admissions were already at all-time highs before Covid-19. I fear that unless the government acts quickly we will see these numbers rise exponentially,” she concluded.

PHE defines higher risk drinking as those people scoring 8 or more on the AUDIT, a 10-question clinical questionnaire that assesses the amount of alcohol consumed and frequency, and levels of harm and dependence.

Download the College’s Next Steps for Funding Mental Health Care in England: Prevention report



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