Study to research impact of COVID-19 on people who use drugs

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Understanding the health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people who use drugs in Scotland is the focus of a new University of Stirling study.

The project – funded under the Scottish Government’s Rapid Research in COVID-19 programme – will assess the longer-term health impacts of the social response to the pandemic on people who use drugs (PWUD).

The research will consider whether a reduction in the availability of illicit drugs has changed purchasing habits – resulting in an increased risk for some – and look at how others may have reduced or ceased drug use to avoid social contact.

Led by Professor Catriona Matheson, of the Faculty of Social Sciences, the research team will look at the impact of the virus on three distinct elements of drug use and services in Scotland: distribution and social use patterns of illicit drugs; the availability of harm reduction services; and the provision of addiction treatment services and the impact on people in recovery.

Professor Catriona Matheson

Professor Catriona Matheson is leading the new study.

The study will also consider whether changes to drug service provision, introduced due to COVID-19, exposes PWUD to harm through a heightened risk of overdose or relapse.

Professor Matheson, Chair of the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce, said: “Feedback received by the Drug Deaths Taskforce suggests a number of issues are beginning to emerge for people who use drugs – because of the virus and the measures being used to combat it. This is the only research of its type and its findings will be provided to policymakers, service providers, and organisations representing people who use drugs to help shape their responses to these challenges.

“Being able to understand how people’s drug purchasing and using behaviours are affected by social distancing will be vitally important to informing pragmatic risk reduction messages for this group.”


Professor Matheson’s team will work with voluntary sector organisations in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Lanarkshire to conduct qualitative research interviews, via telephone or online, with PWUD.

The research team – featuring a number of experienced drugs researchers – includes: Dr Tessa Parkes, Josh Dumbrell and Joe Schofield, all from the University of Stirling, and Dr Angus Bancroft, of the University of Edinburgh.

A second study, led by Dr Parkes, will look at how a Managed Alcohol Programme could help reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection for people experiencing alcohol dependency and homelessness.

The University of Stirling is leading 10 major projects investigating the impact of COVID-19 pandemic after receiving almost £500,000 in Scottish Government funding.

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