Third sector and NHS healthcare experts to unite at a historic summit and pledge to deal with the escalating drug-related death crisis.
A public health emergency has been steadily building in England for a decade. In 2020, 4,312 people died from drug-related poisoning and drug misuse, the highest death toll since records began. Each death is an individual tragedy, leaving behind bereft parents, brothers, sisters, friends and colleagues. Our staff and volunteers are also deeply affected by the deaths of people they work so hard to support.
These deaths are not inevitable. They are the result of stigma, discrimination, disinvestment and the erosion of wider support systems taking their toll on a group of people developing multiple health challenges as they get older.
Two-thirds of registered drug poisoning deaths in 2020 were due to drug misuse. Approximately half of all these deaths involved an opiate such as heroin or morphine. But deaths involving other substances like cocaine are also on the rise.
What’s more, drug-related deaths of those under the age of 50 reached 2,776, almost double that from Covid-19. That’s seven drug-related deaths a day.
Like Covid-19, there is huge inequality in where drug-related deaths occur, and who dies. Deaths are concentrated in what Sir Michael Marmot calls “ignored communities”. Access to rehabilitation and mental health support services has often been reduced in these areas, while high rates of debt, poverty, low income, and poor housing persist.
Those people using drugs harmfully frequently fall outside the mainstream narratives about drug use. Addiction is often inexorably linked with poverty, stigma and trauma in a complex, two-way cycle.
Most of the people dying have experienced a range of harmful factors that worsened both their physical and mental health. The hardships that frequently come with entrenched harmful drug use – insecure housing, poor education and limited to no employment – result in higher degrees of frailty and earlier onset of that frailty. And we cannot ignore the hugely damaging stigma and exclusion felt by many, which compounds their vulnerability by reducing positive engagement with health services.
The pandemic undoubtedly exacerbated the harms of addiction, but even without Covid-19, the spiralling drug problem wouldn’t be easily solved. It is a complex, deep-rooted problem with no easy answer or quick fix. But we do know a united national effort to tackle this drug deaths crisis will make a difference -
That is why we are uniting senior leaders from the third sector and NHS treatment providers at a historic summit in May. Here, we will use our shared knowledge and expertise to commit to steps to curb drug deaths in England.
We will publish these steps as a Charter comprising a collective promise and priorities for action with ambitious targets. Crucially, it will be a simple, clear document built on extensive consultation with providers and people with lived experience. The following year we will review the approach, share experiences, and recommit to our collective mission.
The Charter builds on the work already being carried out across our field to save lives, and previous collaboration between Collective Voice and the NHS Addictions Provider Alliance (APA) in its 2017 briefing “Improving Clinical Responses to Drug-Related Deaths”. It brings us together to recognise what is working and where we could improve our efforts. It is our agreement to hold each other accountable to a set of ambitious actions. It is our promise to people in need of treatment, their families, our staff and each other that we can, and will, do better.
The new Drug Strategy and funding for treatment and recovery is a powerful opportunity for the field to make a major step forward. The Charter is our commitment as providers to a relentless focus on this issue over the next year.
By combining our effort and learning from each other, we believe we can save many more lives. Our hope is that the wider system – the larger field of healthcare, local and national government – will see our effort and recognise the simple truth at its heart – that only by working together will we be able to reverse the increase in deaths.