Britain is facing a ‘looming addiction crisis’ with millions turning to alcohol to cope with the pandemic, a major report warns today.
The number of people drinking at ‘high risk’ levels has doubled to almost 8.5million since February, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Experts fear money worries, the stresses of juggling work and childcare and the emotional fallout from the virus has left many reaching for the bottle.
Thousands more sought help for addiction to painkillers during lockdown amid fears delays to NHS treatment could cause cases to rocket.
Doctors are worried excessive drinking during the pandemic will have a major toll on the health of the nation for years to come.
The number of people drinking at ‘high risk’ levels has doubled to almost 8.5million since February, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists
Professor Julia Sinclair, chair of the addictions faculty at RCPsych, said: ‘Drinking at high levels not only makes people more likely to become alcohol dependent, but many will develop other health problems including liver disease, stomach ulcers, pancreatitis and depression.
‘Drug-related deaths and alcohol-related hospital admissions were already at all-time highs before Covid-19.
‘The looming addiction crisis cannot be tackled unless there is substantial investment from government.’
The professional body, which represents over 18,000 psychiatrists in the UK, analysed the latest data from Public Health England (PHE) on the indirect effects of Covid-19.
In surveys of more than 10,000 people PHE found that more than 8.4million are now drinking at problem levels, up from 4.8million in February.
The problem is rife among the middle class where more than four in ten are now consuming too much alcohol, up from almost 28 per cent in February.
Problem drinking also increased among blue collar workers – up from almost 15 per cent to 31 per cent over the same time period, they calculate.
Experts said the increase was being driven by a number of factors including lockdown, anxiety about the pandemic and job uncertainty.
Health officials used a clinical questionnaire to assess the amount of alcohol consumed, frequency and levels of harm and dependence.
Those who scored eight points or more on topics including ‘feelings of guilt or remorse after drinking’, are classed as ‘high risk’.
They found one in five people – 19 per cent – were in the high-risk category, the equivalent of 8.4million people in England.
Doctors are concerned specialist addiction services will be unable to cope with the soaring demand while the NHS is also bracing itself for a surge in alcohol-related ill health.
Drinking regularly – even at low levels – can raise the risk of a host of health problems including strokes, heart attacks and liver disease.
Experts said the increase was being driven by a number of factors including lockdown, anxiety about the pandemic and job uncertainty
The trend – which experts say is fuelled by the rise in people drinking at home – could be particularly damaging in the event of a second wave.
Studies have found people with alcohol use disorder are more likely to develop serious complications if they catch Covid-19, such as acute respiratory distress syndrome.
People using drugs such as benzodiazepines such as diazepam, which are commonly prescribed for anxiety and insomnia, are also more vulnerable to the virus, research suggests.
Statistics from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS) show there were 3,459 new adult cases in April 2020 – up by a fifth on the same time last year (2,947) and the highest since 2015.
The warning comes a year after Matt Hancock vowed to end over-medicalisation ‘once and for all’.
The Health Secretary made the pledge after a report found 11.5 million patients in England had received at least one prescription in the past 12 months for drugs such as antidepressants, sleeping pills, tranquilisers and opioid painkillers.
The Mail has been campaigning for greater recognition of the prescription drugs addiction crisis since March 2017.
Hospital admissions linked to alcohol, meanwhile, have already soared more than 60 per cent in a decade, with middle-aged drinkers driving the rise.
Nearly 1.3million people admitted to hospital as a result of alcohol in England in 2018/19 up 8 per cent on the previous year and 61 per cent since 2008/9, according to NHS Digital.
Some 47 per cent of those admitted for alcohol-related reasons last year were aged between 55 and 74, compared to just 3 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds.
Now, officials are worried that rising alcohol abuse is yet more collateral damage from the pandemic, which last week saw record waiting lists for routine treatments.
The number of adults consuming more than 50 units a week has soared by 33 per cent since lockdown started, according to Public Health England monitoring.
Alcohol sales at supermarkets also soared by 43 per cent in the four weeks to mid-June as people were forced to turn their backs on pubs and restaurants.
Today’s findings are backed up by a major study by King’s College London, published at the end of May, which found that 29 per cent of adults were drinking more alcohol.
A survey of 2,000 UK adults, commissioned by Help4Addiction, also warned that four in ten households were drinking more.
That followed a stark warning from experts in the British Medical Journal that the toll of increased alcohol harm could last for a generation.
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK said: ‘The worrying findings from this report highlight the hidden alcohol harm crisis in this country. Before the pandemic, only one in five harmful and dependent drinkers got the help they needed; that proportion will be significantly lower now.’
He said the cross-party Commission on Alcohol Harm report, published this week, would demonstrate how lives were ruined by alcohol.
‘With the increase in harmful drinking in the wake of social isolation, unemployment and financial hardship coinciding with reductions in treatment services, the call for an urgent UK Government alcohol strategy is not just empty rhetoric – it is essential,’ he added.
Rosanna O’ Connor, acting director of health improvement at Public Health England, advised that people cut their risk by taking days off from drinking.
‘The Covid-19 pandemic has meant we have all made significant changes to our everyday lives,’ she said.
‘Some of this has been conscious, and in other cases it may well have crept up on us without us noticing.
‘The data shows that there are now more high risk drinkers compared to before lockdown.’ ‘One of the ways that people can reduce their risk is by taking days off from drinking.’
Psychiatrists are calling for a a multi-million-pound funding boost in the upcoming spending review.
DO YOU DRINK TOO MUCH ALCOHOL? THE 10 QUESTIONS THAT REVEAL YOUR RISK
One screening tool used widely by medical professionals is the AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Tests). Developed in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, the 10-question test is considered to be the gold standard in helping to determine if someone has alcohol abuse problems.
The test has been reproduced here with permission from the WHO.
To complete it, answer each question and note down the corresponding score.
0-7: You are within the sensible drinking range and have a low risk of alcohol-related problems.
Over 8: Indicate harmful or hazardous drinking.
8-15: Medium level of risk. Drinking at your current level puts you at risk of developing problems with your health and life in general, such as work and relationships. Consider cutting down (see below for tips).
16-19: Higher risk of complications from alcohol. Cutting back on your own may be difficult at this level, as you may be dependent, so you may need professional help from your GP and/or a counsellor.
20 and over: Possible dependence. Your drinking is already causing you problems, and you could very well be dependent. You should definitely consider stopping gradually or at least reduce your drinking. You should seek professional help to ascertain the level of your dependence and the safest way to withdraw from alcohol.
Severe dependence may need medically assisted withdrawal, or detox, in a hospital or a specialist clinic. This is due to the likelihood of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms in the first 48 hours needing specialist treatment.