Excess drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic could end up leading to thousands of extra deaths and hospital admissions over the next 20 years, health experts have warned.
Research from NHS England and the University of Sheffield shows that while lighter drinkers reduced their intake during the pandemic, heavier drinkers ended up consuming more and may never return to the level they were at.
Those aged between 25 and 34 who were already drinking at higher levels before the pandemic were more likely to increase their drinking when COVID-19 hit than any other group.
Looking at how this problem could develop, in a best-case scenario, the NHS says even if all drinkers returned to the level they were consuming alcohol in 2019 from now, there would still be an additional 42,677 hospital admissions and 1,830 alcohol-related deaths over the next two decades.
The NHS adds that the worst-case scenario could see a rise of 972,382 hospital admissions and 25,192 extra deaths over the same period, which could cost the service £5.2bn.
Lower risk drinkers have been defined as those who consume alcohol within the UK guidelines of 14 units a week, while “increasing risk drinkers” consume up to 35 units a week for women, with men drinking up to 50 units.
High-risk drinkers could be drinking even more than that.
The team said: “In our main scenario, we estimate that, over the next 20 years, there will be an additional 207,597 alcohol-attributable hospital admissions and 7,153 alcohol-attributable deaths, costing the NHS an additional £1.1bn compared to if alcohol consumption had remained at 2019 levels.
“These impacts are not evenly distributed across the population, with heavier drinkers and those in the most deprived areas, who already suffer the highest rates of alcohol-attributable harm, expected to be disproportionately affected.”
Extra research by the Institute for Alcohol Studies (IAS) and HealthLumen discovered that if alcohol consumption does not return to pre-pandemic levels, there will be 147,892 more cases of nine alcohol-related diseases by 2035, such as liver cirrhosis and breast cancer, accounting for 9,914 more premature deaths.
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Colin Angus, a senior research fellow who led the University of Sheffield study, said: “These figures highlight that the pandemic’s impact on our drinking behavior 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.”
Mr Angus added that before the pandemic, it was men who were more likely to end up in hospital or die as a result of their alcohol consumption, and while that is still the case, researchers are seeing a bigger percentage increase for women.
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.
“The increases in alcohol harm, lives lost, and costs to the NHS projected in our study are not inevitable.
“We lack an alcohol strategy and progress on alcohol harm has been limited in recent years in England.
“This research should act as a ‘wake-up call’ to take alcohol harm seriously as part of recovery planning from the pandemic.”