The Telegraph has published a harrowing report on the increase in the number of dependent drinkers as a result of lockdowns which highlights the fact that, while the amount of alcohol consumed in the U.K. decreased during the shutting down of regular life, the number of deaths from alcohol abuse reached a 20-year high. “The physical and psychological impacts,” it says, “could take years to remedy”.
It was two months into the first lockdown when James Roberts, 45, received an ultimatum from his partner. Ever since he set up a travel firm aged 29, Roberts had used alcohol to “self-medicate… to control the stress that comes with running a business”. His career took him to most countries in the world; almost all of the trips involved heavy drinking. But his boozing worsened considerably after Covid hit last March. Cooped up inside his home in the Scottish Highlands and panicked about the economic climate, he turned to the bottle as a source of emotional pain relief.
“I just drank to drown out everything that was happening in the world,” Roberts remembers now. “It was almost like a numbing effect.”
Eventually, his partner told him to seek help – or their relationship was under threat. Roberts was driven to Cheshire to start a four-week residential rehabilitation programme at Delamere Health Ltd at a cost of £15,000. He hasn’t touched alcohol since. Roberts now counts himself lucky: with the steadfast support of his partner, as well as the funds to pay for professional help, he is firmly on the road to recovery.
But not everybody is so fortunate. Doctors are becoming increasingly worried that 14 months of pandemic life have created a dark legacy of alcohol abuse. Whilst overall alcohol intake decreased in the U.K. during each lockdown (probably because of the closure of pubs and restaurants), at the extreme end of alcohol abuse the numbers of deaths shot up.
More than 7,400 people died from alcohol misuse in England and Wales over 2020, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics published earlier this month. It was the highest figure for 20 years, even once adjusted to population. About four in five of those deaths were caused by alcohol liver disease, with a smaller number killed by accidental alcohol poisoning, and mental and behavioural disorders linked to alcohol abuse.
Even among those not diagnosed with alcoholism, alcohol intake seems to have shot up, way beyond the 14 units per week recommended by Public Health England, according to mostly anecdotal reports from doctors and alcohol specialists, who stress that systematic research is needed.
These “Covid drinkers” seem to be concentrated among the middle-aged, including many in stressful high-level jobs.
Just as the cancellation of routine medical appointments has created a worrying backlog in cancer diagnoses, experts worry that successive lockdowns might have created a new generation of dependent drinkers still mostly hidden from the NHS’s view. For some lockdown proved a catalyst, tipping them into the category of “problem drinker”. Others had already been diagnosed with alcoholism long before 2020 but saw their recoveries swing into reverse.
The physical and psychological impacts could take years to remedy – as could the burden on the NHS, which already spends £3.5 billion each year on treating alcohol-related illness in England.
Worth reading in full.