Britain must urgently address its alcohol problem to stop more record-breaking deaths, one of the country’s leading liver specialists has warned as Channel 4 News was granted exclusive access to a specialist liver unit.
Professor Stephen Ryder has called for the government to recognise the severity of the UK’s drinking problem, after figures revealed that alcohol killed more people in the country last year than at any point in the past 20 years.
The stark figures and warnings come as the Channel 4 News social affairs team spoke to those receiving treatment for alcohol addiction at Nottingham University Hospital as well as frontline medics there who say they are now witnessing the consequences of lockdown drinking habits.
“Unless action is taken now, we will see that graph of deaths rise further and further,” Professor Ryder, a consultant at Nottingham University Hospital, said.
There were 8,974 deaths from alcohol-specific causes in 2020 compared with 7,565 in 2019 – an increase of nearly 19%, according to the Office for National Statistics. Close to eight out of 10 of the deaths were a result of alcoholic liver disease.
A recent Public Health England study reported a 25% increase in sales of alcohol in supermarkets and shops during the pandemic, fuelling evidence there was a sharp rise in heavy drinking at home.
“The biggest fear is that those behaviours that people have unfortunately learnt and have come to regard as normal during the pandemic become normalised from this point on,” Professor Ryder said.
Sean Grant, 49, a former firefighter diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, was admitted to Nottingham Hospital as an emergency in April.
An alcoholic for more than 35 years, coronavirus restrictions led to a drastic escalation in his drinking.
“Covid was brilliant. I was on a laptop … camera down – drink.”
He added: “I was the life and soul of the party and then I’d go home and cry. That’s the truth. Addiction doesn’t want you around people – it wants you on your own.”
Now eight months sober, the father-of-two’s life has changed beyond recognition. He helps others battling addiction with his own support group, Inspiring Addiction Recovery.
“I have got nothing but I am happy. Not waking up in the morning thinking I need to do that [drink alcohol] to act normal – it was time for me to say goodbye to it.”
Kieran Grant, who works for Nottingham’s alcohol liaison service in hospital and the wider community, said drink was the lockdown crutch for many as pandemic pressures took hold.
“What we’ve seen is people who have been drinking on the cusp – social drinking – being taken to the next level. Isolation, poor mental health has contributed to that.
“It has tipped them over the edge and created more problematic drinking patterns.
“People don’t realise the pickle they are getting themselves into.”
Annie Cheesbrough, a retired benefits officer, believes she is among that cohort.
“I have a comfy life, a husband, I live in a nice place – I have nothing to complain about – I never had a reason to dive into drink,” she said.
She was consuming an average of two bottles of red wine a day at the height of lockdown, a level of drinking that eventually led to her being hospitalised with a severe ulcer.
“First of all it’s a pleasure, then it’s routine, then it’s earlier and earlier every day and then it’s lots,” she said.
“It wasn’t a very slow creep. It was quite fast. I was scared of it. I more or less stopped driving because I knew drinking that much, there wouldn’t be a point of the day where I would be sober enough to drive.
“It is like sabotaging yourself really. You know it is bad but you can’t stop doing it. That’s the nature of addiction, I suppose. Waking up with self-loathing every morning is not a good thing. You can’t wait to get the next drink down… it dulls the edge. Or does it?”
Asked about the impact on her family, she said: “I probably wasn’t paying as much attention to them as I should.”
Nottingham Hospital has introduced a universal screening programme for all admissions in a bid to identify liver damage earlier and reverse the trend of patients arriving at an advanced stage of illness.
“We looked into their journey five years before death [patients with alcohol problems] and found over half were only told they had liver disease six months before their death – it is too late,” Dr Mohsen Subhani, Clinical Research Fellow at Nottingham, said.
Asked whether the government – which last published a dedicated alcohol strategy nearly a decade ago – accepted the scale of the problem as he and colleagues see it, Professor Ryder said: “No – there isn’t recognition at any level.
“We have normalised alcohol in our society in a way that is deeply unhealthy. A lot of our social interactions seem to depend on alcohol being part of it which is not the norm globally – and I don’t think there’s been political will to take this on and to change.
“I think there has been a lack of confidence politically that they could change this without a big political cost – in terms of votes.”
Vanessa Hebditch, director of policy at the British Liver Trust, said: “This must serve as a wake-up call to the government that the UK urgently needs a joined-up plan to address the liver disease crisis as the UK recovers from Covid. They also need to tackle the affordability and acceptability of alcohol in our society.”
The Department of Health and Social Care told Channel 4 News that no minister was available for interview, but said work was underway to address alcohol-related harms, adding: “We are committed to supporting those at risk.”
Annie Cheesbrough counts herself among the lucky ones.
She continues to receive support in her recovery and wants others – some of whom perhaps fear judgement – to be ready to accept the help that saved her life.
“It is just another facet of human life. Some people have cancer, Some people have addiction. And some people are lucky.”
Produced by: Jamie Roberton