The COVID-19 crisis has, very quickly, highlighted a range of critical risks faced by both people who use drugs problematically and the providers of substance use services. Many in the drug policy and harm reduction community have moved swiftly to propose ways to address these issues in both the short and medium term. It has been encouraging to see that the UNODC has also sought to very clearly assert the needs and rights of people who are facing both an acute health risk and the additional effects of stigma and marginalisation.
As part of this effort, Transform and Release submitted a joint response to a call from the Treasury Committee to advise on how dedicated COVID-19 funding might best be spent. This briefing summarises that response, and sets out some of the interventions we think are needed to help alleviate the risks. It can be read alongside our recent blogs which discuss specific issues and principles in more detail.
There are an estimated 320,000 people in the UK who use drugs problematically, many of whom suffer from the kind of underlying health issues that put them at increased risk from COVID-19. In recent years, we have already experienced a public health crisis which has seen drug-related deaths soar to record levels. Criminalisation of people who use drugs has also contributed to an overcrowded prison system, which has put both prisoners and prison staff at high risk of infection. The measures proposed below will not only help reduce drug- related mortality and other harms, but also significantly reduce the risk of increased COVID-19 infection rates among people who use drugs.
Tackling these issues is not only a matter of compassion and support for a vulnerable community, but of reducing the risk – without such interventions – of placing much greater pressure on the NHS, prisons, and other service providers.