Soaring numbers of people who are drinking at high risk during the pandemic will not be able to access addiction services in England unless there is significant investment from the Government, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

In new analysis of Public Health England data, the College has found that nearly 8.5 million adults were drinking at high risk in June up from just 4.8 million in February. 

It said that due to years of cuts, addiction services are ill-equipped to cope with post-pandemic surge and the College is calling for multi-million-pound funding package in upcoming spending review

In addition, the number of people addicted to opiates seeking help is also at its highest level since 2015. Statistics from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS) show 3,459 new adult cases in April 2020 - up 20% from 2,947 in the same month last year - the highest numbers in April since 2015.

Addiction services have been starved of funding

Psychiatrists are calling for the Government to use the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review to reverse the cuts and enable local authorities to work towards investing £374 million into adult services so they can cope with the increased need for treatment.

Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Addiction services have been starved of funding in recent years meaning many are not able to treat and care for the huge numbers of people who are drinking at high risk.

“More lives will be needlessly lost to addiction unless the Government acts now and commits to substantial investment in public health, including adult addiction services, in the Spending Review.

“I urge the government to implement the recommendations in our report which would see mental health services expand to be the biggest in Europe, with a much-needed focus on tackling inequalities.”

Latest data shows there were 4,359 drug-related deaths in England and Wales in 2018, the highest on record, while the 1.26 million alcohol-related hospital admissions in 2018/19 were also the highest on record.

One in five adults drinking at higher risk in June

Prof Julia Sinclair, Chair of the College’s Addictions Faculty, said: “Covid-19 has shown just how stretched, under-resourced and ill-equipped addiction services are to treat the growing numbers of vulnerable people living with this complex illness.

“There are now only 5 NHS inpatient units in the country and no resource anywhere in my region to admit people who are alcohol dependent with co-existing mental illness.

“Drug-related deaths and alcohol-related hospital admissions were already at all-time highs before Covid-19. I fear that unless the government acts quickly we will see these numbers rise exponentially.”

The report warns that people with alcohol use disorder are more likely to develop serious complications if they catch Covid-19, including acute respiratory distress syndrome. People using drugs such as heroin and benzodiazepines are also more vulnerable to the virus.

Responsibility for the delivery and funding of addiction services was taken out of the NHS and given to local authorities following legislative changes in 2012.

Following the move to local authorities, funding for addiction services in England for adults and young people combined fell by £234 million (25%) in real terms from 2013/14 to 2018/19.

The most recent data from Public Health England (PHE) on the wider impacts of Covid-19 shows nearly one in five (19%) adults drinking at higher risk in June, up from one in 10 (10.8%) in February. The College calculates that when applied to the population of England some 8,410,045 people are now drinking at higher risk.

PHE defines higher risk drinking as those people scoring 8 or more on the AUDIT, a 10-question clinical questionnaire that assesses the amount of alcohol consumed and frequency, and levels of harm and dependence.