By Helen Drake, Co-editor, Features

Several weeks ago, whilst relaxing on the beach enjoying the beautiful sunshine in what, at the time, seemed like a never-ending summer, I overheard a man walking by saying to his companion, “It’s usually two weeks in Spain getting sunburned and drunk every day, but this year it’s been three months here doing it.” Quite amusing, but I noticed they both were drinking from large bottles of beer and it was 11am.

It is generally accepted that we have a bit of an alcohol problem in England, though it is rarely talked about. According to the Office of National Statistics, 29 million people in England regularly indulge in alcohol, with around 7.8 million of those being binge drinkers.

So, if you have found yourself drinking more than the occasional tipple since we went into coronavirus crisis and lockdown, you are not alone. Here are some figures from the whole of the UK before looking into the situation in Hastings:

Back in April, Alcohol Change UK commissioned research (carried out by Opinium) to find out whether people’s drinking habits had changed during the Covid-19 lockdown. 2,000 people took part in a survey and, at that time, it showed that more than 1 in 5 (21%) of adults who drink were drinking more often since the lockdown began in March, but that 1 in 3 (35%) had reduced how often they drank, or had stopped drinking altogether.

This equated to 8.6 million adults in the UK drinking more frequently, and 14 million drinking less often or abstaining completely. However, many appeared to be seeking help with visits to the ‘Get Help Now’ area of Alcohol Change UK’s website, at that time, increasing by more than fourfold, equating to around 11,000 visitors.

Whilst many were taking steps to manage their drinking, there was also a substantial number struggling to reduce or limit their alcohol consumption, and Dr Richard Piper, Chief Executive of Alcohol Change UK, said that the research showed that, “alcohol is leading to increased tension in millions of households across the UK”, and that, “successive governments have had a blind spot on alcohol harm, but the reality is that it’s the cause of 1.3 million hospital admissions and over 7,000 deaths each year”.

This also impacts on higher rates of domestic violence, child neglect, mental health issues and an additional pressure on the NHS, police services and the criminal justice system.

Alcohol Change UK subsequently commissioned another survey which was carried out in July, again with 2,000 people taking part, and this revealed that 28% of adults who drink alcohol believed they were drinking more. With the easing of lockdown and the opening up of pubs, 49% of this group said they would continue to drink as they had been during the lockdown, and 17% said they would drink even more.

1,647 of people polled were current or former drinkers and 1 in 5 said they had been drinking more during lockdown, although the amount drunk on an average drinking day had not changed significantly, with only 13% drinking more units on drinking days.

More worryingly, 19% said they had drunk alcohol as a way to relieve stress or anxiety, and parents of under 18s were more likely to do so (30%). Of those who drank more during lockdown (9 or more units per drinking day), 40% had drunk as a response to stress or anxiety.

Encouragingly, those in the 18-34 age groups, declared that they were cutting down or abstaining from alcohol altogether.

But how are we fairing in Hastings and East Sussex?

I spoke to Robert Ralph, Change Grow Live Team Leader and East Sussex Alcohol Lead at Star’s Drug and Alcohol Service in Hastings. Whilst data is not yet available for Hastings alone, Robert told me that this year East Sussex has had “a massive spike” – a 138% increase – of people seeking help with alcohol problems, with over 250 seeking help compared with just over 100 people at this time last year. He said, although there had been an upward trend already, “those kinds of numbers are way off the scale to what we’re used to”. He reported that numbers had peaked to 46 in June, with some recognising that they “had developed a problematic use of alcohol” and realising they needed some help.

The Star service has been impacted with their assessment service being booked up for the next six weeks. He confirmed there had been an increase in numbers in all the alcohol services across East Sussex.

Robert said “it has been a difficult time for people, no doubt”, and that, sadly, some who had been doing really well in their recovery had relapsed. “It’s been a very difficult time for people who have a previous issue with alcohol and then all of a sudden they’re quite isolated. People are struggling with social isolation as much as anything.” 

He said he thought the situation had led to a lot of people drinking more through boredom as well. Some need to keep socially active to manage on-going issues, like going to work, having some structure to their day. Having a drink is a coping mechanism to deal with stress and anxiety for some, and we have to find other ways to do this. This is one of the things that Star helps with, but they have not been able to provide all of the usual facilities. 

I asked Robert to tell me a bit about how the process worked when somebody sought assistance through Star. He told me that they carry out a full assessment for people experiencing issues with alcohol or drugs. People can be referred to them by other agencies, a GP, or some even refer themselves.

After assessment the course of action will depend upon the individual. Sometimes, in severe cases of alcohol addiction, it is dangerous to stop drinking and can cause death and so a full rehabilitation programme will be necessary.  For most, group work will be suitable, but there are also one-to-one sessions available.

He said, “they’re not like the groups in the movies, where you’ve got to turn up and say, ‘My name’s Rob and I’m an alcoholic’. That’s very much the AA model, which we do also promote to people”. They encourage people to begin a journey of recovery, he said. 

They provide nursing intervention, when required, and some people have an ‘in-patient detox’ which allows the alcohol to be taken out of their system in a safe environment with medication. Some people will be able to do it themselves at home and will have the support of Star and regular visits there. Some go on to rehab and some have counselling. They also run ‘relapse prevention groups’.

They work with other agencies, like the East Sussex Recovery Alliance (ESRA) who offer group work (including art and creative writing), and they are run by people who have been on a recovery journey themselves.

Obviously, during this time of Covid-19, they have not been seeing their clients face-to-face, so they have been carrying out telephone support for people needing help, including telephone counselling.

Thank you very much to a reader who kindly sent me this about his experience attending AA meetings which have been online since lockdown began: “Although ‘face to face’ meetings are gradually starting to open up again, online meetings continue. Whilst there are undoubtedly drawbacks to online meetings, in that the feeling of ‘belonging’ is harder to sense, as is the physical and spiritual aspect of meeting fellow alcoholics, from the perspective of someone who wants to find out what AA meetings are all about, there are some benefits:

You can log in to any meeting across the world, at any time of day, wherever you are. You don’t have to use your real name, or even show your face on camera if you don’t want to. So, they can be less daunting than attending a ‘real life’ meeting.

It’s also worth bearing in mind AA’s third Tradition: ‘The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking’. You don’t have to be sober to come along and you will never be judged, no matter how far down the scale you may feel.”

If you, or someone close to you, is struggling with controlling your alcohol consumption, there is help available. Don’t suffer in silence. 

Star Drugs and Alcohol Service, Hastings:
or telephone: 0300 303 8160

East Sussex Recovery Alliance (ESRA): 
5 Harold Place, Hastings or telephone: 01424 435318

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA):
For details of local meetings: or telephone: 0800 9177 650

List of AA zoom meetings:

Priory Group, Bexhill:
Or tel: 0808 278 8225.

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