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Alcohol and Covid-19: A Perfect Storm

Government urged to increase alcohol duty ahead of budget

Government urged to increase alcohol duty ahead of budget

Posted 15/07/21

Around 855,000 North East adults and 60% of male drinkers were drinking above low risk limits during 2020 . And nearly 1 in 4 heavier drinkers ended up drinking more.

Those are the worrying findings from a survey by Balance, thought to be the largest in-depth study of alcohol use in any English region during the pandemic.

Balance is warning that 2020 saw a “perfect storm” with alcohol and Covid, more people experiencing anxiety and mental health problems , advertising campaigns encouraging people to drink alcohol to cope, and a record year for alcohol deaths.

The survey also showed worryingly low awareness of many of the health risks associated with alcohol, but strong public support for a range of policies to protect health, kids and communities from alcohol harm.

It found:

Consumption in 2020:

Low awareness of risks

With a lack of health information on labels, awareness of many health harms was low. While most people know that alcohol is linked to liver disease, only:


People in the North East also recognised the problems alcohol is causing, with 79% linking it with anti-social behaviour, 72% with domestic violence, 68% with violent crime and 60% with sexual assault.
One in two also linked it to the spread of Covid and 68% associated it with inability to adhere to social distancing rules.

Support for restrictions

Also released in July 2021, a Public Health England report found that deaths from alcoholic liver disease increased by a staggering 20.8% during the Covid-19 pandemic, by far the highest yearly increase on record – fuelled by rising consumption of wine and spirits, especially amongst the heaviest drinkers. The North East also suffered disproportionately, with the biggest increase in alcohol-specific deaths, particularly in the most deprived groups of the population. This also concluded that liver disease is now the second leading cause of premature death amongst people of working age.


Sue Taylor, Acting Head of Alcohol Policy for Fresh Balance, said: “These reports paint a compelling and worrying picture about drinking patterns last year in the North East, and highlight an urgent need for action.

“The UK was already at crisis point with alcohol long before Covid, but the pandemic saw a tipping point. Cheap alcohol together with the terrible anxieties of Covid created a “perfect storm” which resulted in millions more drinking at risky levels, problems for families and heavy use turning into dependency.

“It is clear that people in the North East recognise the serious problems associated with alcohol. There is also strong support for more action from the Government to tackle alcohol harms in our communities. Alcohol is too cheap, too available and too heavily promoted. We need evidence-based action now before millions more families suffer.”

James Crosbie, GP, consultant gastroenterologist and Clinical Lead for Alcohol for the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System, said: “Myself and other GP colleagues are very worried that so many adults are more likely to have increased consumption in a year when families have been under huge strain. We’re already seeing this in the problems people are presenting with in clinics.

“With alcohol there are short and long-term risks, from at least seven types of cancer to heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, liver disease and mental health problems.
“The NHS sees the fallout from alcohol every day and the pandemic has made this worse. The worry is that this is a ticking health time bomb for the near future.”

Alice Wiseman, Director of Public Health for Gateshead and Alcohol lead for the Association of Directors of Public Health, said: “As with COVID, the bulk of alcohol harm falls on the most deprived people in our communities and this is particularly worrying in the North East where, even before COVID, we already suffered from the highest rates of alcohol-related death and illness in England.

“As alcohol has got cheaper, the harm to individuals and communities has got worse. It is scandal that people can drink a week’s worth of alcohol for the price of a coffee. The hugely concerning reports from PHE and Balance show that it is time for action. The Government needs to introduce an evidence-based alcohol strategy, which tackles the cheapest strongest alcohol, restricts promotion and availability and funds treatment, to bring an end to the rising burden of alcohol-harm and death.