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Background: The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted health-care delivery, including difficulty accessing in-person care, which could have increased the need for strong pharmacological pain relief. Due to the risks associated with overprescribing of opioids, especially to vulnerable populations, we aimed to quantify changes to measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, overall, and by key subgroups. Methods: For this interrupted time-series analysis study conducted in England, with National Health Service England approval, we used routine clinical data from more than 20 million general practice adult patients in OpenSAFELY-TPP, which is a a secure software platform for analysis of electronic health records. We included all adults registered with a primary care practice using TPP-SystmOne software. Using interrupted time-series analysis, we quantified prevalent and new opioid prescribing before the COVID-19 pandemic (January, 2018–February, 2020), during the lockdown (March, 2020–March, 2021), and recovery periods (April, 2021–June, 2022), overall and stratified by demographics (age, sex, deprivation, ethnicity, and geographical region) and in people in care homes identified via an address-matching algorithm. Findings: There was little change in prevalent prescribing during the pandemic, except for a temporary increase in March, 2020. We observed a 9·8% (95% CI –14·5 to –6·5) reduction in new opioid prescribing from March, 2020, with a levelling of the downward trend, and rebounding slightly after April, 2021 (4·1%, 95% CI –0·9 to 9·4). Opioid prescribing rates varied by demographics, but we found a reduction in new prescribing for all subgroups except people aged 80 years or older. Among care home residents, in April, 2020, parenteral opioid prescribing increased by 186·3% (153·1 to 223·9). Interpretation: Opioid prescribing increased temporarily among older people and care home residents, likely reflecting use to treat end-of-life COVID-19 symptoms. Despite vulnerable populations being more affected by health-care disruptions, disparities in opioid prescribing by most demographic subgroups did not widen during the pandemic. Further research is needed to understand what is driving the changes in new opioid prescribing and its relation to changes to health-care provision during the pandemic. Funding: The Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council, The National Institute for Health and Care Research, UK Research and Innovation, and Health Data Research UK.

Original publication




Journal article


The Lancet Public Health

Publication Date





e432 - e442