Are we in an alcohol crisis in the South East?

As a journalist working in the medical sector, I receive hundreds of press releases about health-related topics (other than covid-19), and something that has struck me during the pandemic is how the mainstream media seems to have lost all perspective on any other health crisis other than the virus.

Today I received one that said the UK and our regional, the South East, was in an “alcohol crisis” and that the NHS was being crippled by rising admissions and more deaths than ever before. We have heard these two terms a lot in the last two years, but why are these pandemics within the pandemic being ignored?

While I am in no way diminishing the impact covid has had on all our lives, and in particular, those who have lost loved ones, we seem to have forgotten that there are other families out there being hit by tragedy as they lose people to diseases that are being forgotten in the midst of covid.

With life on hold for most of the country because of coronavirus, what about all those people suffering and dying from other diseases? What about those dying from cancer? (there are more than 166,000 cancer deaths in the UK every year: source Cancer Research). What about heart disease (more than 160,000 deaths annually: source British Heart Foundation). And what about mental health?

The pandemic and the associated lockdowns have had a huge impact on mental health. Many of my friends (myself include) have experienced loss through suicide during the last 20 months, and addiction, domestic violence and other mental health issues, such as stress and anxiety, are rife. Even the Government has acknowledged that “the number of people contacting the NHS seeking help for mental health problems is now at a record high”.

Our region in crisis

This week, the Office for National Statistics revealed that more people than ever in the South East before lost their lives to alcohol in the year of the covid-19 pandemic. 

In 2020, there were 986 deaths (10.9 per 100,000 people) from alcohol-specific causes, a staggering 20% increase compared with 2019 (828 deaths) and the highest alcohol mortality rate since records began. 

The figure is unsurprising when a report by Public Health England reveals that back in 2019/20, hospitals across the region were crippled with the highest number of alcohol-related admissions ever recorded. 

141,650 people from the region were admitted into local hospitals in 2019/20 for alcohol-related conditions, 10% more than the previous year (128,700 admissions). This is almost the same number that has died from covid across the country during the entire pandemic, yet we are not talking about alcohol-related admissions and deaths with the same force in which we are talking covid. Yes, of course, you can’t catch alcoholism off someone else, but its impact is devastating nonetheless.

73% of hospital admissions were men (103,560), with the remaining 38,090 admissions being women. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that 63% of the alcohol-specific deaths in 2020 were male (639 deaths for men and 347 deaths for women).

Local alcohol addiction treatment experts UKAT have analysed the recent PHE and ONS data, showing that rising regional hospital admissions back in 2019 didn’t prevent rising alcohol death rates in 2020.

Nuno Albuquerque, Consultant Treatment Lead for the UK Addiction Treatment Group, comments, “What we would have hoped to have seen is that as more people are admitted into hospital with alcohol-related conditions, they would have received both short-term and long-term medical and therapeutic help and support that would hopefully prevent their alcoholism from worsening. 

“What we’re seeing is that this hasn’t necessarily been the case for those living in the South East. In fact, more people lost their lives to alcohol even though they’d not long engaged with local hospitals. This suggests to us that sometimes, a more powerful intervention style of treatment is needed.”

UKAT’s analysis of today’s Public Health England data shows that in Kent, in 2019/20, 22,850 people were admitted into hospitals with alcohol-related conditions, up from 21,560 the previous year. Sadly though, the 2020 alcohol-specific death toll rose from 151 in 2019 to 160 in 2020, an annual increase of 6%. 

Similarly, in West Sussex, in 2019/20, 13,260 people were admitted to hospitals with alcohol-related conditions, up from 13,070 the previous year. However, in 2020, the alcohol-specific mortality rate rose from 85 deaths to 115 deaths in 2020, an increase of 35% in just one year.

Albuquerque continues, “Data from Public Health England suggests that alcohol consumption rose during 2020, which will have undoubtedly led to rising hospital admissions and ultimately, loss of life. The NHS was floored by treating those with the virus in 2020, and this has meant that other health conditions were left to worsen. 

“We urge the Government to stop burying their heads in the sand when it comes to this country’s alcohol crisis. It is a crisis, and it is a pandemic within a pandemic. Bring back protected budgets for substance misuse treatment services so that we can relieve the NHS and support those who have been ignored over the last couple of years.”

Nuno Albuquerque, Consultant Treatment Lead for the UK Addiction Treatment Group

I couldn’t agree more. If the justification for the lockdowns and restrictions we have all been put under is to lessen the burden on the NHS, then why is the Government ignoring all other crises impacting our treasured health service?

We are so blessed to have the health service we do in this country. Having had a medical emergency abroad and seen how unfair and expensive medical care is if you don’t have the money to pay for it, I massively value our NHS and the amazing doctors, nurses and other staff working within it. But I personally cannot understand how so many people are being left to suffer while we won’t accept anyone going down with covid.

If you are struggling with alcohol, the best thing you can do is ask for help. There’s a free 24/7 online chat service is available for help with alcohol addiction, you can also reach out to organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which has a helpline.

The Mental Health Foundation has lots of resources about coping with the pandemic specifically.

As someone who is almost seven years sober, I can tell you that life without alcohol is not only possible its far easier than struggling to get through every day suffering from depression, self-loathing and shame. There is help, and when you reach out your hand for it, your life can change in ways you cannot imagine right now. Please know that there are people who care. You are not alone and you deserve more.


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