Record rise in drug deaths in England & Wales highlights urgency to review funding

The number of drug-related deaths has reached a record-high in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) as drug treatment services funding continues to decrease.

In it's annual report on drug poisoning in England and Wales published on 14 October 2020, the ONS revealed that 4,393 died in 2019, yet another rise from 2018 and the highest number since comparable records began in 1993.


The North East of England has a significantly higher rate than any other region, another trend that has continued for the past seven consecutive years.


Rates of drug poisoning deaths have also been consistently higher in the most deprived areas, particularly among people in their forties, and deaths involving cocaine have increased for eight years in a row.


The statistics emphasise the urgency to safeguard and increase investment in drug addiction services and to adopt a cohesive response to tackle the drug-related crisis.

Dame Carol Black, who was commissioned by the government to review the harm caused by drugs, found that there had been a 17% cut to treatment budgets since 2014, and with only five remaining inpatient detox provision units in England, it is now a postcode lottery for patients who need to access these vital services.


Jon Shorrock, Chair of the NHS Inpatient Network, highlighted the pressing need to reverse the trend. He said: “We at the NHS inpatient network, part of the NHS APA, are saddened and increasingly frustrated with regard to the lack of a cohesive policy response to reversing the tide in relation to the shameful levels of drug related deaths in England and Wales.


“The NHS inpatient units, which are under severe threat of closure are, for a significant minority of usually the most unwell drug and alcohol service users that access them, the difference between a road to healthy recovery and prolonged life rather than being the next drug-related death statistic.


“We do have a choice to reverse this trend and a responsibility to do so that includes secure funding to the NHS inpatient units amongst other key financial and policy changes.”


Other findings showed that almost half of all drug-related deaths involved opiates such as heroin and morphine, and that the rate of drug deaths among women has also risen for the 10th consecutive year to 49.1 deaths per million in 2019, up from 47.5 deaths in 2018, although the rate among men decreased slightly to 104.7 per million in 2019, from 105.4 in 2018.


The age at which most people died from drug misuse has also continued to increase, with 20 to 29-year-olds having the highest rates during the first decade of figures, 30 to 39-year-olds between 2003 and 2015, and 40 to 49-year-olds-since then.

“National decision makers need to wake up to the fact that swingeing cuts to services, disconnecting NHS mental health services from addiction services and shifting the focus away from harm reduction to abstinence-based recovery is destroying lives and fuelling the increase in drug-related deaths.”

Responding to the statistics, Dr Emily Finch, Addictions faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Vice Chair of NHS APA, said: “The highest-ever recorded number of people dying through drug-related deaths in England and Wales should serve as a wake-up call to the Government that their approach to addiction services is putting people’s lives at risk.


“The 28% cut in spending in today’s prices on adult drug misuse services in England since 2013/14 has starved services of the money needed to treat people living with this potentially life-ending illness. Shortages in skilled professional staff and the disconnection between health and addiction services means patients living with multiple health needs cannot be properly treated.


“National decision makers need to wake up to the fact that swingeing cuts to services, disconnecting NHS mental health services from addiction services and shifting the focus away from harm reduction to abstinence-based recovery is destroying lives and fuelling the increase in drug-related deaths.”


The drug treatment services, which saves lives, improves harm reduction, and tackles stigma, are operating under immense pressure as funding continues to decrease and the drug-related crisis heightens. This is likely to get worse as ONS has highlighted that the data relates to deaths registered last year so will not cover those that occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic.


In response to yesterday’s report, Chair of the NHS APA, Danny Hames says that these figures give a stark insight to a struggling system: “The NHS APA believes that the continuing year on year upward trend in drug related deaths as well as the rate of increase, constitutes a public health emergency. The data does not lie. It proves that thousands of people per year are dying as a direct result of chronic under-funding across the entirety of the drug and alcohol treatment system.


“The Dame Carol Black review provides further weight to our conclusion that the government must act now to redress the 28% funding reductions that the sector has seen in recent years. If they do not, they will knowingly complicit to the reality that more preventable deaths will occur particularly given the additional impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic.


“The NHS APA is asking for immediate action on this issue and we are ready and willing to provide our first hand insight and advice about how and why change needs to happen.”

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