'Drinking more since Covid? Why I don't want you to experience the tornado of alcohol addiction'

Towards the end of 2020, research revealed 8.4 million people were drinking at a high-risk level - almost double the number who were prior to the Covid pandemic. But how much is too much, and how can we reduce the harm alcohol causes?

ITV journalist and recovering alcoholic Toby Winson explores what’s led to this stark rise in problem drinking, for an edition of ITV's Tonight programme being broadcast on Thursday.

My addiction to alcohol ripped through my life like a tornado. It began in my teens and almost killed me in my mid-20s, when my liver decided enough was enough.

I drank all day, every day, until I passed out, which made the damaging blows to my body and mind constant and substantial.

Fortunately, I had an amazing family who never gave up on me; family who twice fought to get me a bed in rehab. Not everyone is that lucky.

I am now almost five years sober, my liver is no longer diseased and I am rebuilding my life.

As soon as the pandemic began, I knew that alcohol would become a crutch for many. Isolation, furlough, restrictions and death led to stress, anxiety, pain, and grief for many – alcohol offers a temporary escape from all of these.

In May 2021, figures from the Office for National Statistics all but confirmed my fears.

In 2020, alcohol killed more people in England and Wales than in any of the previous 20 years – by a considerable margin. The ONS reported 7,423 people died from alcohol specific causes, up 20% on 2019.

A recent poll by YouGov for Drinkaware - shared exclusively with the Tonight programme - shows 13% of UK drinkers are consuming more alcohol now than before the pandemic began. That’s the equivalent of 5.8 million people.

Toby had liver disease by the age of 25. He's now five years sober and his liver is no longer diseased. Credit: ITV Tonight

These statistics tell me we are in the midst of two pandemics: coronavirus and alcohol-harm.

Through the Tonight programme, I wanted to find out how, as a society, we can reduce alcohol-harm and prevent the suffering of thousands.

Firstly, I spoke to a doctor on the front line of dealing with the consequences of alcohol consumption.

Dr Ryan Buchanan told me the liver ward was the busiest ward in his hospital last Summer – something he had never seen before.

What really shocked me was the fact the majority of patients he treats for liver disease are not people who drink to the extreme like I did, but people who drink a bottle or half a bottle of wine every night.

You may as well throw the stereotype on an alcoholic out of the window. People are holding down great jobs, living pretty normal lives, only drinking in the evenings but still doing devastating damage to their livers.

I visited a rehabilitation centre ('rehab') for the first time since I was discharged as a resident. Every single resident I spoke to said their drinking got worse during the various lockdowns.

The manager told me they’re seeing an increase in demand for their services, but worryingly, services like rehabs have been cut in the last decade.

The Tonight programme found a 16% fall in funding for addiction services by local authorities since 2015, and the number of rehabs has fallen by 38% since 2012.

Toby now educates people including schoolchildren on the dangers of alcoholism. Credit: ITV Tonight

Of course, alcohol harm does not just affect the person doing the drinking, it affects the people who love them too.

As a part of the documentary, I sat down with my parents to talk about how my alcohol addiction had affected them. It was not just me who lost seven years to alcohol, they did too. I will never truly be able to repay them for what they did.

I spoke to an incredibly brave woman called Amy who had lost her father, Steve, in September following a long battle with alcoholism.

Amy’s dad was a proud man, who for many years, was a functioning alcoholic. Steve made some attempts to cut down, but in Amy’s opinion, never accepted he needed to stop completely.

'He got a pint and then dropped a shot of vodka into became very clear he couldn't function without it,' Amy says

She is now helping others as a volunteer speaker for Nacoa UK – a charity which provides support for families of alcoholics.

I asked everyone I spoke to the same question: What needs to be done to reduce alcohol-harm? Minimum unit pricing was near the top of everyone’s list.

Strong cheap cider was all I could afford in the year leading up to my liver disease diagnoses; I only needed £3.70 to buy a bottle of cider, which had the same amount of alcohol in it as half a litre of vodka.

The policy was introduced in Scotland in 2018 - alcohol cannot be sold for less than 50p per unit. Now, alcohol sales are at their lowest levels in 26 years and early figures suggest a 10% reduction in alcohol deaths.

It’s since been introduced in Wales and is in consultation in Northern Ireland. But there are no plans for minimum unit pricing in England.

In a statement, the UK Government said they are aware alcohol consumption has risen in the last 18 months, and they are committed to ensuring treatment services are available.

Alcohol harm is clearly on the rise in parts of the UK; you do not need to be drinking at 6am to be doing severe damage to your health. Many who think they are drinking responsibly, could actually be damaging themselves and their relationships significantly. I think education has a big part to play if we are to reduce alcohol harm.

I am not suggesting alcohol should be made illegal - it is part of our culture and that will never change. Many people can drink alcohol responsibly.

But those I speak to who have experienced alcoholism feel passionately that if we are going to continue to allow anyone over the age of 18 to consume something that is highly addictive and bad for our health, we should have adequate services, policies and funding in place to help those who begin to drink at harmful levels or become addicted.

Are You Drinking Too Much? is broadcast on Thursday 29 July at 7.30pm on ITV, and will be available to watch afterwards on the ITV Hub

For help and advice for the issues raised in the article, the following sources of support are available:

  • NHS 

  • Alcohol Change UK - a national charity providing advice and support

  • Adfam - provides support for families affected by drugs and alcohol.

  • Drinkaware - an independent UK-wide alcohol education charity