Soaring numbers of people misusing alcohol combined with deep cuts to addiction services could see patients missing out on life-saving care in England, warns the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Many adults have been drinking more since the coronavirus pandemic began, and care providers are struggling to cope with the increased demand. The college estimates that in June, more than 8.4m people in England were drinking at higher-risk levels, up from 4.8m in February.

NHS guidelines advise adults drink no more than 14 units of alcohol (the equivalent of six large glasses of wine or six pints of beer) a week, and to spread that over three days or more. Drinking too much can damage your liver and increases the risk of other health conditions such as heart disease and stroke.

The college has urged the government to invest millions more in addiction services as the rise in unsafe drinking coincides with more people becoming addicted to opiates, who are also seeking help from addiction services. Referring to National Drug Treatment Monitoring System statistics, 3,459 new adult cases of opiate addiction were recorded in April – up 20% from 2,947 in the same month the previous year.

Prof Julia Sinclair, chair of the college’s addictions faculty, said: “Covid-19 has shown just how stretched, under-resourced and ill-equipped addiction services are to treat the growing numbers of vulnerable people living with this complex illness.

“There are now only five NHS inpatient units in the country, and no resource anywhere in my region to admit people who are alcohol dependent with co-existing mental illness.

“Drug-related deaths and alcohol-related hospital admissions were already at all-time highs before Covid-19. I fear that unless the government acts quickly we will see these numbers rise exponentially.”

A spokesperson from the mental health charity, We Are With You, said: “Social isolation and a lack of a human connection is a big factor behind why some people turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism, so clearly the pandemic continues to be really tough for many people.

“When you consider that the UK had some of the highest levels of alcohol-related harms in Europe even before the lockdown in March, the need for government action now is clear.”

The Department of Health said it had increased funding this year for spending on public health services like addiction, to over £3.2 billion.

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