Highest annual figure
Key findingsConsistent with previous years, the alcohol-specific death rate for males in 2020 (17.6 deaths per 100,000 males; 4,891 deaths) was around twice the rate for females (8.7 deaths per 100,000 females; 2,532 deaths). When comparing quarterly rates for the English regions in 2020 with the corresponding quarter in 2019 there were significant increases in the North East and London in Quarter 2 2020, in the South West in Quarter 3 2020, and in the North West, West Midlands and South East in Quarter 4 2020. Rates for persons are presented in the reproduced graphic below, though caution is recommended when directly comparing regional rates; because of the relatively smaller number of deaths, rates for English regions by quarter of death registration have a wide degree of statistical uncertainty.
Reasons behind the increase
When trying to understand the elevated rates of alcohol-specific deaths seen since April 2020, the statisticians say that there will be many complex factors, and it may be some time before we fully understand all of these.
However, it seems that increased alcohol consumption by some people during the pandemic is likely to be the most important factor.
Data from Public Health England collected during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic show there have been higher levels of abstinence from alcohol since the first national lockdown in England, compared with drinking habits beforehand. Despite this, data for the same time period show an increase in those reporting higher levels of drinking (greater than 35 units per week).
Other small studies have also found that lockdown may have resulted in increased alcohol consumption in people with alcohol use disorders and relapse for those who were previously abstinent.
Data on the purchasing of alcohol from food retailers have also seen an increase during the pandemic. However, it is possible that these figures reflect the reduction in alcohol purchased and consumed outside of the home. Further, more detailed work is required to understand whether this increase represents a full shift from sales in pubs, bars and restaurants, to sales purchased from supermarkets and shops to be consumed at home as opposed to more drink being purchased overall.
While it is clear that alcohol consumption in higher-risk drinkers has increased during the pandemic, statisticians caution that it will take time before the impact of this on mortality is fully understood.