There has been a 27% rise in people dying while in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, according to new data covering the pandemic.
Between April 2020 and March 2021, 3,726 people died while in contact with drug and alcohol services – up from 2,929 the year before.
Overall, 275,896 people were in treatment for their drug and alcohol addiction over the period, according to the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities.
Analysis shows that those in treatment for opiate addiction but who lost their lives rose by 20% to 2,418, and those in treatment for alcohol addiction but who died rose by 44% to 1,064.
Of all those in treatment, more than half (51%) had problems with opiates and more than a quarter (28%) had alcohol problems.
The number of people in treatment for alcohol alone rose by 3% from the previous year – from 74,618 to 76,740.
However, this small increase came after a decline from a peak of 91,651 in 2013/14.
Nuno Albuquerque, head of treatment for the UK Addiction Treatment Group, said: “The start of the coronavirus crisis was extremely frightening and uncertain.
“But drug and alcohol treatment is critical care intervention and cannot be simply put on pause.
“We know that a concerning number of facilities closed their doors to addicts who were already in the treatment process and, although it was such a difficult time, it cannot be a coincidence that more people have subsequently lost their lives when they were in fact trying to save it.”
Analysis by the UK Addiction Treatment Group also found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of those who started treatment for any substance needed mental health treatment as well.
Summarising the new data, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities said several factors were driving the figures.
“Like other services, drug and alcohol treatment services were affected by the need to protect their staff and service users in the pandemic, especially in the early stages,” it said.
“Most services had to restrict face-to-face contact, which affected the types of interventions that service users received. For example, most patients whose opioid substitute consumption was supervised before the pandemic were given take-home doses from March 2020, after a risk assessment.
“Fewer service users were able to access inpatient detoxification for alcohol and drugs. Testing and treatment for blood-borne viruses and liver disease were also greatly reduced.
“It’s likely that a number of factors will have contributed to the increase in the number of service users who died while in treatment during 2020 to 2021.
“These include changes to alcohol and drug treatment, reduced access to other healthcare services, changes to lifestyle and social circumstances during lockdowns, and Covid-19 itself.”
Dr Emily Finch, vice-chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Each of these deaths is a tragedy and is a stark reminder of just how destructive and damaging addiction can be.
“It’s vital that anyone struggling with their alcohol or drug use seeks help from local services.
“But years of underfunding and a workforce crisis mean many services are ill-equipped to treat the number of people needing help.
“The Government must urgently act on the recommendations made by Dame Carol Black and give addiction services £396 million more a year by 2024/25.
“Unless the Government sees this as a public health crisis, more lives will be needlessly lost to a treatable addiction.”
Elsewhere, NHS England said a record 634,649 people completed the NHS talking therapy programme in 2020/21, up about 5% on the 606,192 in the year before.