Alcohol-related deaths jumped by a fifth during lockdown as people bought more to drink at home with pubs forced to shut.
Statistics from Public Health England (PHE) reveal that nearly 7,000 people died due to alcohol misuse last year – up 20 per cent from 2019. There was a similar spike – 21 per cent – in deaths due to alcohol-induced liver damage.
PHE found that while pubs and restaurants were shut for several months, the amount of alcohol bought from shops increased by 25 per cent from 2019 – around 12.6 million extra litres.
"We saw increases for all product types, with the largest relative increase for beer (+31.2 per cent), followed by spirits (+26.2 per cent), wine (+19.5 per cent), and cider (+17.6 per cent)," the PHE report said.
Further analysis found the bulk of the extra alcohol was purchased by the heaviest drinkers. The top 20 per cent of at-home drinkers bought 5.3 million extra litres of alcohol during the pandemic than in 2019, accounting for 42 per cent of the total year-on-year increase.
Dr Katherine Severi, the chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: "This report highlights the shocking increase in alcohol harm following the Covid-19 pandemic.
"A 20 per cent increase in deaths directly caused by alcohol must be an alarming wake-up call for the Government to act. Alcohol harm in England has, for too long, been neglected – but these data show it can no longer be ignored."
Dr Severi called for the Government to introduce minimum unit pricing, which has already been rolled out in Wales and Scotland and will soon be in force in Northern Ireland.
Experts also found that increased and higher-risk drinking was maintained for much of last year after an initial surge during the first lockdown. However, there are now signs that people are returning to drinking levels similar to those seen before the virus crisis hit, according to the study.
Rosanna O’Connor, the director of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and justice at PHE, said: "Our research suggests that lockdown has affected heavy drinkers the most and that they are drinking more.
"Liver disease is currently the second leading cause of premature death in people of working age and this is only set to get worse if the Covid-19 pandemic results in a long-term increase in drinking."
Jo Churchill, the public health minister, said the evidence of increasing harm during the pandemic was "deeply concerning", adding: "I am committed to addressing this and widening the availability of treatment services at both a local and national level."