A decade has passed since an alcohol strategy was published by a Westminster government – a new plan is long overdue, writes Julie Bass, chief executive at Turning Point.
The need for clear boundaries around alcohol in the workplace was a key theme of the recent Sue Gray report. Excessive drinking “is not appropriate”, she said, in offices or wherever people carry out their jobs “at any time”.
However, the drinking culture Gray exposed is not just an issue in Downing Street and Westminster. The extent of this nation’s ambivalent, and at times toxic, relationship with alcohol was highlighted in a recent report from the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on complex needs and dual diagnosis.
It showed how the pandemic has heightened unhealthy behaviour. Most of us did not break the law while restrictions were in place. But many switched focus from the pub to home during those long days and nights of lockdown.
The consequence has been that some people developed alcohol-related habits which would not have been tolerated by most employers, such as drinking at the desk. Others who already consumed a lot were pushed into seriously problematic drinking by the strains and stresses of Covid.
This is borne out by data on alcohol sales – the amount purchased overall dropped, but heavy drinkers bought more.
Harmful drinking is putting intolerable pressure on the NHS and other public services. Many people who struggle with alcohol misuse are not getting the help they urgently need, with years of underfunding a major factor.
Further evidence, namely from YouGov surveys, shows more than 8 million people were drinking at harmful levels in June last year, nearly double the number at the start of 2020. Deaths in England related to alcohol misuse also saw a worrying 19 per cent rise in 2020 to 8,974.
When someone becomes dependent on alcohol, they cannot then simply quit at will. Nor can the habit be broken quickly. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned that it could take years to reverse the behaviour of those pushed into a pattern of problem drinking in the pandemic.
The charity I lead, Turning Point, is not in the business of preaching or judging. Stigma and discrimination around alcohol misuse is itself detrimental because it deters people from seeking help. And many individuals are able to enjoy a drink without negative consequences.
However, we are concerned about the far-reaching repercussions of consumption at unhealthy levels for both society and individuals. Addressing the wider issues caused by harmful alcohol use should be at the top of this government’s priority list.
A decade has passed since an alcohol strategy was published by a Westminster government. A new plan is long overdue.
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