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Millions in UK drinking harmful levels of alcohol at home, experts warn

Millions of Britons are causing themselves “silent harm” through hazardous drinking at home, experts have warned, as figures reveal levels of “higher risk” alcohol consumption have soared during the pandemic.

While the new figures concern England only, the phenomenon has been seen in all parts of the UK.

Eight million people in England are drinking so much wine, beer or spirits that it is harmful to their health, according to data from the government’s Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, with a large increase in the numbers drinking at levels considered to be dangerous.

Prof Julia Sinclair, the chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the switch to drinking at home during the Covid pandemic was partly to blame for the rise, with drinking sessions sometimes lasting several hours longer than they would in a pub.
Figures based on YouGov surveys show 18.1% of adults in England were drinking at “increasing or higher risk” in the three months to the end of October 2021, which equates to 8 million people.

That is much higher than in February 2020, before the pandemic, when 12.4% or about 6 million people drank at these levels. In October 2019, 11.9%, or about 5 million people, were drinking at this level.

The NHS recommends adults consume no more than 14 units of alcohol per week. Increasing or higher-risk drinking is defined by the alcohol use disorders identification test (audit) used by professionals, which asks questions about people’s drinking habits. It looks at how often people drink, how many units in one session, whether they ever feel guilty and whether they sometimes miss out on usual activities due to drinking.

Sinclair said the latest data, which suggests more than twice as many men as women are drinking alcohol at hazardous levels, showed people were still dealing with uncertainty and anxiety caused by the pandemic while some had formed habits involving alcohol.

Asked if current drinking levels could be considered the “new normal”, Sinclair told PA Media: “The best, most realistic, scenario is that the higher-risk drinkers go back over the next probably five years to normal risk drinking – back to where they were. But people won’t just suddenly flip back to where they were – none of us suddenly flips back.
“What we’re going to see is that some people who were perhaps drinking at a higher risk but weren’t physically dependent will have pushed themselves into being physically dependent, and they’re not the group who can suddenly wind back from this.

“What was really clear was that just even nine months of drinking, as we saw in 2020, was enough to push a whole load of people over the edge. We’ve yet to see the data from this year but my guess anecdotally would be that it is going to be substantial.”

Sinclair said some people who never drank except when they went out or went to the pub were now drinking at home. “You then get some periodic times when you can also drink in the pub,” she said. “Do you suddenly change your behaviour to not drinking at home or does drinking in the pub now become the add-on?”
At the moment, Sinclair said, the data suggests people were carrying on drinking what they began to drink at home and then drinking more on top of that.

Many people have not yet reached the stage where they realise they have a problem and are causing themselves “silent harm”, she added. Drinking at home “can go on for hours” and people are not keeping track of their measures – “the drinks are not coming in units”, she said.

Sinclair said patients were coming into hospitals in a “much more severe” state. “We’ve had more patients going into delirium tremens – the really kind of life-threatening part of alcohol withdrawal – who end up in intensive care,” she said. “I have seen more people in our hospital in that state [during the pandemic] than I’ve seen in the six years prior to that.”