Published: 24th June 2021
With the easing of most restrictions in sight, and as we return to a life reminiscent of the past, what will the lasting effects of the pandemic be? The path ahead is unpredictable, as we have seen recently with the easing of lockdown restrictions in England and Wales being delayed due to the Delta variant. As we move slowly into a post-lockdown period, the issue of alcohol misuse, exacerbated by the pandemic may not simply go away. During the first lockdown, those consuming alcohol were drinking more, and experts fear that the pandemic may have produced a new generation of dependent drinkers. Could anxiety around the easing of restrictions and other factors lead to a continued increase in alcohol misuse?
Alcohol misuse a lockdown legacy
The true long-term effects of the pandemic are still unknown, we know that there has been widespread cancellations of routine medical appointments and that services for those in recovery for alcoholism have been reduced. In a recent poll by alcohol charity Drinkaware, 66% of those deemed high-risk drinkers, those exceeding 34 units (women) and 50 units (men) of alcohol a week are drinking more than they usually would have done before the COVID-19 crisis. Of those drinking at high-risk levels, more than three in 10 (31%) stated that they are drinking much more, compared to 5% among all UK adults. .
The scope of this problem was highlighted in a recent article by The Telegraph. James, a company director in his early 40s explained how the stresses of managing a workforce during a time of economic crisis had pushed him over the edge, and into heavy drinking. James stated that he had become an alcoholic and that working at home meant he had access to a round-the-clock open bar. “..I knew in the back of my mind that just downstairs [were] kitchen cupboards full of cans and bottles”.  James commented on how he had drank himself to oblivion, regularly getting through 10 cans of lager and other drinks, also adding, “When I ran out, I simply ordered more on Deliveroo”. The legacy of lockdown is a mixed one. Those already consuming high-risk levels of alcohol, consumed more and those who had never experienced problems with addiction faced a new reality.
Having reviewed data around alcohol consumption during the pandemic, Drinkaware are calling for alcohol harm to be recognised as a public health priority; arguing that there should be particular focus on certain groups, including those affected by redundancy and furlough.  Evidence and Impact Director Annabelle Bonus, from the charity said: “Our survey shows that there are clear differences in the drinking habits across certain groups of the UK population, signalling a clear need for targeted action and appropriate support..”. 
Anxiety growing as restrictions ease
As more and more restrictions are eased, anxiety is anticipated to become a larger problem, with the NHS recently releasing guidance on how to cope with anxiety relating to the easing of lockdown restrictions.  Unfortunately, post-lockdown anxiety is not the only factor at play. Those who have been made redundant due to the economic fallout of the pandemic or those who have been placed on furlough are a particular group of concern. A recent survey found that 49% of UK adults who have either been made redundant or who are in the process of redundancy are drinking more than they would have prior to the pandemic. 
As we move closer to a restriction free life, for those facing the challenges associated with alcohol addiction, and particular groups at risk of alcohol misuse such as those having been made or going through redundancy or on furlough; the adjustment to post-lockdown life will not be straightforward. The government’s furlough scheme, reduced further next month and ending completely in September has the potential to increase anxiety; with those drinking at high-risk levels set to increase. 
Although alcohol support services are beginning to return to normal , the anticipated increase in need for these services may see some of those at risk fall through the net. Not all at risk are in a position to get help, and support services will be stretched to the limit. The legacy of the pandemic, in part could see more individuals developing habits relating to alcohol misuse that are becoming ingrained. Health professionals have signalled increasing worry regarding the effects of over 14 months of restrictions to normal life – creating a dark legacy of alcoholic abuse.  With the pandemic came isolation, which as a result meant that signs of alcohol misuse were potentially going unnoticed and unreported. With access to alcohol reduced, and licensed premises closed, has the pandemic intensified a problem that is no longer in plain sight?
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