Coronavirus: 'Tackle harmful lockdown drinking,' BMJ editorial warns

By Philippa Roxby
Health reporter

image copyrightGetty Images

Tackling harmful drinking during the lockdown will be "an integral part of the nation's recovery", an editorial in the BMJ says.

With supermarket sales of alcohol having risen, it warns cases of alcoholic liver disease could increase too.

And the writers fear drinking could be fuelling a rise in calls to domestic violence charities.

They say greater investment in alcohol treatment services is needed.

"Many people reacted to the closure of pubs and restaurants by stocking up to drink at home in isolation," says the article, by Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, who chairs Alcohol Health Alliance UK, and Ilora Finlay, who chairs the House of Lords Commission on Alcohol Harms.

Sales of alcohol in off-licences rose by 31% in the same month - but this accounts for just 1% of alcohol sales.

And with the lockdown starting on 23 March, figures for the whole of April are likely to be much higher.

"It is increasingly clear that if we don't prepare for emerging from the pandemic, we will see the toll of increased alcohol harm for a generation," the editorial says.

Two groups need particular attention - those:

  • already struggling with alcohol dependence
  • "on the brink of dependence during lockdown and beyond"
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionGrowth in sales of alcoholic drinks outstripped even that of food purchases

And bereavement, job insecurity and troubled relationships could all trigger alcohol dependence.

"Before Covid-19, only one in five harmful and dependent drinkers got the help they need," the writers say.

"The proportion will be even lower now."

Charity Drinkaware says lockdown and isolation could have affected many people's drinking habits.

A survey of 2,000 UK adults found:

  • a quarter were drinking more than normal
  • 17% were drinking less

The proportion of those now drinking on days they wouldn't usually was:

  • 28% of those now furloughed
  • 26% of those now working from home

And of the furloughed workers:

  • One in seven was having their first drink earlier in the day
  • One in 10 was drinking in secret

"Changes like these are signs of potentially problematic behaviours that, over time, can develop into alcohol dependency," Elaine Hindal, from Drinkaware, said.

"It is vital that this new normal does not lead to an 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality, particularly when it comes to the health and wellbeing of the UK workforce."

Employers should ensure their staff did not become disconnected during the furlough period and plan for a return to work "that prioritises employee health and wellbeing", she added.