Top fifth of drinkers bought '17 times' more alcohol in lockdown, Newcastle University finds

The top fifth of drinkers bought 'significantly more' more alcohol during the first five months of the pandemic. Credit: ITV News

Voices across the North East have expressed alarm at a major new study showing some of the UK's heaviest drinkers bought significantly more booze during the first Covid lockdown, with households in the north buying more.

Alcohol awareness charity Balance and doctors in the region responded to the research which academics said could explain why 2020 saw a record number of alcohol-related deaths.

Sue Taylor, head of alcohol policy for Balance, said: "This report highlights 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."

The study by Newcastle University found the top fifth of households that consistently purchased the most alcohol bought around 17 times more from shops and supermarkets than the bottom fifth during the lockdown from March to July.

Households in more socially disadvantaged areas also bought more, as did those living in the North of England.

Balance is now calling for more government action to tackle the negative effects of alcohol.

Ms Taylor added: "Alcohol is too cheap, too available and too heavily promoted. We need evidence-based action now before millions more families suffer, starting with a Minimum Unit Price to save more lives."

Dr James Crosbie, a GP and consultant gastroenterologist with South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, said the spike in drinking deaths during the pandemic was a tipping point following decades of alcohol abuse.

He said: "These figures are shocking and unacceptable, especially in the impact they are having in poorer communities and the North.

"Here in the North East we saw the worst rate of alcohol deaths in the country - often among people buying the cheapest strongest alcohol.

"Heavy drinking causes wear and tear on the body and both short and long-term health risks, from at least seven types of cancer including bowel and breast to heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, liver disease and mental health problems.

"We can certainly see the impact of alcohol in the problems and the concerns that patients are presenting within clinics. It's perhaps no wonder when alcohol is sold so cheaply and promoted almost everywhere."

This latest research, published in international scientific journal PLOS ONE, analysed recorded shopping data from almost 80,000 households between 2015 and 2020, which included around 5 million purchases of alcohol, to map-out buying habits over time.

It was carried out in collaboration with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East and North Cumbria.

ITV Tyne Tees has approached the government for a response to the study and its findings.