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Alcohol harms: a hidden pandemic in the age of COVID-19?

08 October 2020 – The second IAS briefing on alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic has found that looser regulations on alcohol availability may undermine longer term progress on alcohol harm, with treatment services used less frequently by those who need them.

General population survey data indicate that there has been a rise in the proportions of both non-drinkers and higher risk drinkers, and that similar proportions of people are drinking more than before and less than before.

There are also modest declines in duty receipts from HM Customs and Revenue data – in the financial year to date duty is only 2.4% down on the same period in 2019-20 – and with limited information available about the impact of the reopening of the on-trade on alcohol consumption, it seems as drinking habits have changed little.

But addiction treatment services have seen a decrease in the number of clients starting alcohol or other drug treatment this financial year, suggesting that those with most severe dependency issues may not be picked up in alcohol harm data. For example, professionals in the addictions field have reported barriers such as some clients being unable to access support delivered remotely over digital platforms.

There are also concerns from elsewhere that relaxation of regulations on availability designed as temporary measures for the duration of the pandemic become embedded and permanent as a result of industry activities. If this is the case, there is a possibility such activities could undermine longer term progress on alcohol harm.

There are many gaps in knowledge, and in particular there is a risk that a reduction in healthcare utilisation means alcohol harm persists or worsens but becomes less visible.

The report suggests that along with action on other non-communicable diseases under the agenda to ‘build back better’, tackling alcohol harms must be an essential part of the UK’s COVID-19 recovery plan.

You can click on the link 'Alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK – Second IAS briefing' to read the briefing in full.