With more people seeking support for alcohol-related issues since the lockdown, the government must be prepared for the after effects.

What legacy will the coronavirus lockdown leave on treatment services? With the numbers of those seeking support for their drinking on the rise, Laura Bunt, Deputy CEO at We Are With You explores how services have adapted to our changing world and what support from the government is needed.

Alcohol is a big part of social life in Britain. It leads celebrations at birthdays and offers comfort at funerals, transcending culture and class. It can bring people together but can also cause harm. 

As the UK hunkered down into lockdown, it was no surprise alcohol sales rose sharply. Britons spent an extra £160m on alcohol in the first three weeks of March, and off licence alcohol sales increasing by over 31% in April. 

However, despite fears that the enforced isolation of lockdown would lead to an increase in harmful drinking, we saw a 72% fall in the number of referrals into alcohol treatment in April compared to January of this year. This was a trend repeated across the health sector – from alcohol treatment, to mental health services, to cancer screenings – as people were worried about COVID-19 and were hesitant of placing extra strain on the NHS with services under such pressure. 

As lockdown restrictions eased, we started to see a big increase in the number of people needing treatment and support for alcohol-related issues. New alcohol referrals into our Lincoln service have doubled compared to this time last year, and across our services referral rates have been increasing – with June and August recording the highest rates of alcohol referrals so far this year. The number of people seeking support online has also risen sharply.

Thankfully the numbers of people accessing treatment since COVID-19 has started rising again, but the lockdown will leave a lasting legacy. Research by the Office for National Statistics found cases of depression among adults have doubled in the last few months. Talk to any recovery worker and they will tell you problematic alcohol use is nearly always a reaction to mental health issues. 

As treatment services, we need to be innovative, reacting quickly to our changing world; but the government and alcohol industry need to also play their part. Alcohol is widely available and is around 60% cheaper in real terms today than it was in 1980. Yet in March this year the government scrapped a planned increase in duty on beer and spirits, while tax on all other kinds of alcoholic drinks were also frozen. This increase wouldn’t have been large, with most people barely noticing the difference when buying alcohol in pubs or supermarkets, but these extra funds could have gone towards treatment services which in recent years have seen budget cuts of up to 40% in some areas.

We also need much clearer advice and information about the potential harms of alcohol. In January 2016 the Chief Medical Officer published new guidance, reducing the ‘low-risk’ number of units people should drink a week from 21 to 14. But the recent study by the Alcohol Health Alliance found that, of 424 products examined, over 70% did not include low-risk drinking guidelines while nearly a quarter contained misleading information such as the old low-risk drinking guidelines or guidelines issued by other countries. 

Access to information shouldn’t just be aimed at adults. Young people also need support to make informed decisions. Over the past five years, we’ve worked with the Amy Winehouse Foundation to give universal alcohol and drug education sessions to around 90,000 secondary school pupils. 78% of the young people we worked with said they would be more likely to avoid risky behaviours relating to drugs and alcohol, while 93% said they now knew how to seek help. If every school offered this kind of programme, young people would have more confidence in making safer decisions and we may go some way to normalise getting support. 

People also need better choices. For anyone trying to cut down their drinking, it’s dispiriting to be confronted in pubs or restaurants with a choice of water or orange juice. Tax incentives have supported a vibrant market for microbreweries and new drinks providers; we should see the same support for a greater variety of low to no alcohol drinks to give people more attractive, healthier options. 

The UK has some of the highest levels of alcohol related harms in Europe, and yet four out of five people dependent on alcohol aren’t in treatment. As treatment services we need to do everything we can to reach more people in the coming months. It will take time for people to process what they’ve gone through and many will use alcohol as a coping mechanism. But we can’t do it alone. The alcohol market in the UK is swayed too far towards profit and away from public health. The Government must address this imbalance. 

If you are concerned about your own alcohol or drug use, or of someone you know, you can speak to a trained advisor via We Are With You’s online webchat.

Written by Laura Bunt, Deputy CEO, We Are With You

This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.