Dr Zak Uddin looks at how drinking habits have changed during lockdown and urges a responsible approach to enjoying alcohol.

WITH “Dry January” almost upon us, I hope this article won’t be received as a dampener to the seasonal festivities, but hopefully an insight into the effects of the pandemic on our consumption of alcohol, as well as perhaps an aid for those who feel their drinking may have become excessive as a result of Covid-19 and the resulting restrictions on our daily lives.

The pendulum has swung both ways since the first lockdown in March, with some making an active decision to reduce their drinking, or to become abstinent, while for others the reverse has occurred.

Research by the charity Alcohol Change UK reveals that after March 23 a third of adults chose to cut back or stop drinking altogether, while a fifth reported greater levels of alcohol consumption. Of significant concern is information from Public Health England showing that one in 20 adults were consuming 50 units on a weekly basis – over three times the recommended amount of 14 units for both men and women. This figure was one in 30 before the first lockdown.

It appears those who prior to the pandemic consumed little alcohol were more likely to decide to drink less or not at all, whereas those who were already regular drinkers, or drank more than the recommended amounts on a usual basis increased their alcohol intake.

There are multiple reasons behind the pandemic’s effect on people’s behaviour towards alcohol, some being obvious, others less so.

Covid brought a great deal of uncertainty with regards to job security and the future. For those furloughed, suddenly there was no break between the week and the weekend.

Relationships in households where previously families may have seen very little of each other became strained by being together 24/7. For parents having to home school, this may have been more than they bargained for.

Although we were told anyone and everyone was only a phone call or FaceTime away, for those not that tech-savvy or without a computer, smart phone or internet access, social isolation became a real issue, especially if they lived alone, and/or were required to shield.

Alcohol became a comfort blanket for many, and it was easy to start drinking at an earlier hour, without having to worry about being over the limit for driving to work the next day. It provided a way of temporarily decreasing tensions in households, or an escape from the immediate problems, at least for a short while.

Home measures are by and large more generous than those in regulated establishments and some may not have even been aware of how much they were drinking.

Yet far from easing tensions, excess alcohol will have silently contributed to worsening individuals’ health and wellbeing at a time of already increased stress.

The effects of prolonged excessive drinking on physical and mental illness are well documented, with increased risk of cancer and heart disease, the two biggest causes of death. Its contribution to relationship breakdown, job and home loss as well as domestic violence are significant.

But the figure of the bedraggled toothless person holding a bottle in their hand, gently swaying from side to side, is not when alcohol becomes a problem. It can occur long before this. Tolerance to excess consumption develops fairly rapidly, without much outwardly to suggest harm.

I would argue that concerns over being labelled as alcohol dependent or the dreaded term alcoholic perhaps stops some on the brink of accessing help from coming forward.

An honest and accurate calculation of your weekly number of units is the yardstick by which you can judge whether you are drinking too much. Even regularly drinking what you might consider modestly over the advised levels can and have long term health effects. Most containers now indicate the number of units within them. Bear in mind that strong lagers and beers may well have more than two units in a pint, and that a large glass of wine is three units.

Many will be able to bring their drinking back to within sensible limits without more than a gentle reminder, and by making a conscious effort.

For those drinking heavily, this often being classified as the equivalent of two or more bottles of wine per night, it is important not to attempt to go “cold turkey” as this can result in becoming significantly unwell with even life-threatening seizures.

Although the figure of £3.5 billion is oft quoted as the yearly cost of alcohol related conditions to the NHS, it is important to recognise that those suffering the spectrum of alcohol related illnesses need our sympathy and support, not our judgement.

Useful websites: www.drinkaware.co.uk; www.alcoholchange.org.uk; www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk