By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - The number of people dying in England and Wales from alcohol-specific causes rose to a record rate in the first nine months of last year when COVID-19 lockdown measures were in force, according to official figures on Tuesday.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said provisional data showed between January to September there had been 5,460 deaths directly attributable to alcohol misuse, a 16% increase compared to the previous year.
The rate of 12.8 alcohol-specific deaths per 100,000 people was the highest since 2001 when the data was first recorded, the ONS said.
"The reasons for this are complex and it will take time before the impact the pandemic has had on alcohol-specific deaths is fully understood," Ben Humberstone, deputy director of Health Analysis and Life Events at the ONS.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown on March 23 last year, with people instructed to stay at home unless absolutely essential to try to curb the coronavirus pandemic. Measures were gradually eased by September, but many restrictions on social mixing remained in place.
The ONS said there had been a 17.7% increase in alcohol-specific deaths between April and June compared with 2019, and a 22.6% rise between July and September, both described as statistically significant increases.
Richard Piper, Chief Executive of charity Alcohol Change UK, said more work was needed to explain the rise, saying heavy drinkers might have been consuming more or those who needed help had not sought it because of the pandemic.
"What we do know is that this crisis is worsening," he said. "Like many of the effects of the pandemic, alcohol deaths have not been felt equally across our communities, with deaths significantly higher in more deprived areas."
Last November, an Alcohol Change survey had showed almost one in three drinkers had been drinking at increasing or high risk levels over the previous six months, with anxiety or stress cited as the main reason.
Alcohol Anonymous, an organisation which helps drinkers achieve sobriety, also said calls to its helpline and online services rose by more than 35% in the first quarter and 15% in the second quarter last year compared to the same period in 2019.
(Additional reporting by William Schomberg)