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Increased drinking fuelled by the pandemic could lead to 25,000 booze-related deaths over the next two decades.

A new study commissioned by NHS England from Sheffield University found that while lighter drinkers cut their consumption during the pandemic, heavier drinkers drank more and may never return to where they were.

Experts found that over-45s who were drinking at risky levels before the pandemic were the most likely to increase their drinking when Covid-19 hit.

Looking at five alternative scenarios for how alcohol consumption may develop from 2022 onwards, researchers said that in a best-case scenario – where all drinkers return to their 2019 levels of drinking this year – there would still be an extra 42,677 hospital admissions and 1,830 deaths over 20 years due to alcohol.

In a worst-case scenario, this would rise to 972,382 extra hospital admissions and 25,192 deaths, at a cost to the NHS of £5.2 billion over 20 years.

Its central scenario had an additional 207,597 alcohol-attributable admissions and 7,153 alcohol-attributable deaths.

Study leader Colin Angus, senior research fellow who at the university, said: “These figures highlight that the pandemic’s impact on our drinking behaviour is likely to cast a long shadow on our health and paint a worrying picture at a time when NHS services are already under huge pressure due to treatment backlogs.”

In a worst-case scenario, this would rise to 972,382 extra hospital admissions and 25,192 deaths ( Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The central scenario will costing the NHS an additional £1.1 billion compared to if alcohol consumption had remained at 2019 levels.

According to modelling in the report, lower risk drinkers are those drinking within the UK alcohol guidelines of 14 units per week.

Those classed as “increasing risk drinkers” consume more than this but no more than 35 units per week for women and 50 units for men.

Meanwhile, high-risk drinkers consume even more than that.

In a separate study, the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) and modelling specialists HealthLumen found that if drinking does not to return to pre-pandemic patterns, then by 2035 there will be 147,892 additional cases of nine alcohol-related diseases – such as liver cirrhosis and breast cancer – and 9,914 more premature deaths, costing the NHS £1.2 billion.

Even if alcohol consumption returns to 2019 levels after 2024, there will be 24,706 more cases of disease.

There are more than 200 health conditions linked to alcohol, including seven types of cancer.

There are more than 200 health conditions linked to alcohol ( Getty Images/iStockphoto)

IAS head of research Dr Sadie Boniface said: “The pandemic has been bad for alcohol harm: deaths from alcohol have reached record levels, and inequalities have widened.

“The increases in alcohol harm, lives lost, and costs to the NHS projected in our study are not inevitable.

“We lack an alcohol strategy and progress on alcohol harm has been limited in recent years in England.

“This research should act as a ‘wake-up call’ to take alcohol harm seriously as part of recovery planning from the pandemic.”

Nicola Bates, director of industry body the Portman Group, said: “Total alcohol consumption has gone down consistently over the past 10 years.

“Britons now drink around 15% less alcohol than they did 10 years ago.

“During the lockdowns the vast majority of people continued to drink moderately and this research shows some lighter drinkers cut their consumption.

“However, there is a small minority who were already drinking at high harm levels when the lockdowns began and evidence suggests some went on to drink more.

The models presented in this research are stark but they presume no interventions are made.

“This small minority of drinkers are the ones who need the most support with targeted action and a focused policy response.”

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