Northern Ireland news

Drug and alcohol abuse crisis not prioritised by Stormont, watchdog report warns

The number of alcohol related deaths in Northern Ireland have risen by a third in the past decade
Seanín Graham

TACKLING drug and alcohol abuse in Northern Ireland has not been "enough of a priority" for government resulting in devastation for families and society, a Stormont watchdog has warned.

"Alarm" at the levels of prescription drug mis-use and "lack of understanding" about prescribing trends by the Department of Health have also been singled out in a damning paper by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The report was commissioned last year after a 2020 audit investigation exposed major problems facing addiction services across the north - with more than 200 hospital beds occupied each day.

Auditors warned levels of addiction and inadequate services were creating an "unsustainable burden", and called on all government departments to work together to address the crisis.

The PAC probe, which is published today, notes that it took five years for Stormont to produce a new substance abuse strategy (it was released last September).

While praising the strategy's focus on a more joined-up approach, the paper said its aims must be backed up by "action and funding" that will ultimately help reduce drug and alcohol related deaths.

The cost of implementing the strategy is £6 million a year, which has not been secured.

"In the Committee’s view, tackling substance use has not been enough of a priority for the public sector, and the lack of strategic focus on this area has exacerbated the huge financial costs and significant harms caused to individuals, families and wider society," the report states.

"The Committee hopes that the implementation of the new strategy will be treated with more urgency."

Latest figures show a record high number of alcohol-related deaths were recorded in Northern Ireland in 2019, with an increase in fatalities among women.

A total of 336 people lost their lives due to "alcohol specific causes" - a third more than a decade ago. Drug-related deaths reached 189, a 40 per cent rise on the previous two years.

During their research, the PAC said they received multiple testimonies about the "bumpiness" of the journey for people trying to access addiction services as they were so fragmented:

Among the ten recommendations, the need for an increase in specialist rehabilitation beds is highlighted.

The report calls on the Department of Health to urgently undertake a "fundamental review" of the sector.

High prescribing rates of prescription drugs such as Pregabalin - the pain relief medication has been to 40 per cent of recent drug-related deaths - are also detailed.

The north has the highest prescribing rates of Pregabalin in the UK.

"Prescribing rates and related harms continue to rise sharply...Progress in this area has been much too slow and it is very concerning that the department does not appear to have a clear understanding of why prescribing rates are so much higher in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK," the report states.

It adds: "The committee recommends that work is undertaken to investigate the sources of

these harmful drugs. In our view, this is not just a health issue, and so a wider response from the centre of government is also required."

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