Almost one in four drinkers in Scotland are guzzling alcohol at increasing or high risk levels during the Covid-19 pandemic leading to serious concerns about the health of the nation in lockdown.

More than two-in-five (43%) Scots who already drink at increasing or higher risk levels - more than 14 units a week - reported they are now quaffing more than they would usually, according to the study by alcohol education charity Drinkaware.

It has raised concerns that many Scots are putting their health at risk, with some risking serious and long-term damage to their health, if increased pandemic drinking trends are not reversed.

The study has also found certain groups – including those on furlough and those with caring responsibilities and parents – are drinking more and are displaying "worrying drinking habits that could become ingrained".

The advice group is now calling on governments to recognise the impact of increased alcohol consumption as a public health priority, saying it should be considered as an important factor in both obesity and mental health strategies.

There have been nearly 11,000 deaths caused by alcohol recorded between 2010 and 2019.

Some 23,751 people in Scotland were admitted to a general acute hospital with an alcohol-related diagnosis in 2018/19 - that remains four times higher than in the early 1980s.

But official figures also show that before the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, the number of alcohol-specific deaths had dropped by 10% in the last full year from 1,136 in 2018 to 1,020 in 2019.

That was the first substantial drop in the number of alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland since 2012.

It followed the introduction of minimum unit pricing by the Scottish government in May 2018 a bid to cut consumption and save lives.

In January - before the Covid-19 crisis - it emerged the amount of alcohol sold in Scotland's shops fell during the first year of minimum pricing but sales increased south of the border.

The new analysis found that 24% of drinkers in Scotland are consuming alcohol at high risk levels – more than the Chief Medical Officer’s (CMO) recommended guidelines of 14 units a week.

Some (56%) of people who already drink at higher risk levels - more than 35 units a week for women and more than 50 for men - reported consuming more than they would usually. And 39% of those who drink at increasing risk levels - between 14 and 35 units a week for women, 14 and 50 for men - were quaffing more.

Overall, 13% of Scots reported drinking more alcohol than usual since March, with 24% drinking less.

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The study found that more than one in three (38%) of furloughed workers and those facing redundancy report were drinking more since the onset of lockdown restrictions in March. That is two-and-a-half times more than the national average of 16%.

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And nearly one in five of Scots surveyed at the start of December believed they should cut down on how much they drink.

Drinkaware urged all drinkers stick to the CMO’s low risk drinking guidelines of no more than 14 units a week to keep their risk of alcohol harm low.

Drinkaware’s evidence and impact director Annabelle Bonus said: “There is a clear and very worrying picture emerging here. Certain groups are more vulnerable to the risks from alcohol harm than others, and the pandemic is having a direct impact on many people’s drinking across the country.

“After a year of uncertainty, with more sadly to come, the effects of drinking to excess cannot be swept under the carpet. As a nation we must act now.”

The warning comes as one charity revealed it had seen an 80% rise in people contacting its drug and alcohol abuse helpline.

Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs said 1,680 people had asked for help between March and November, up from 935 in the same period last year.

Families of people with addiction problems accounted for 34% of the increase while there was a 244% jump in contacts from people using substances themselves - from 177 to 609.

The charity said this was possibly because many were struggling to access any other support services.

The Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) which has launched a manifesto for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election has called on all parties and candidates to recognise that alcohol-related harm has implications for physical and mental health, and to commit to policies that will help tackle Scotland's alcohol problem.

"In 2019, 1020 people in Scotland died from a cause wholly attributable to alcohol. This is 1020 too many, and a number that does not include deaths where alcohol has contributed, such as suicide, road accidents and a wide range of diseases," it said.

"It is more important than ever that we do not lose sight of long-term public health measures that can improve the health and wellbeing of everyone in Scotland, build the resilience of our NHS and local care services, and benefit the economy.

"At last estimate, problematic use of alcohol cost the Scottish economy £3.56 billion. Now is the time for bold action on alcohol problems if we are to achieve our long-term health goals and created a fairer Scotland for the future."

Across the UK, since the tiered restrictions were introduced in October, furloughed workers and those either made redundant or are in the process of redundancy were also twice as likely to be drinking on more days a week than usual - 23% compared with a national average of 13%.

People within this group were also more likely to have felt the need to drink to cope with the day - 16% compared with the national average of 8%. And they were three times as likely to have been drinking alone when they wouldn’t usually - 31% compared with 11% nationwide.

And some one in four with caring responsibilities or with parents under the age of 18 were more likely to report drinking more.

Last year Scotland was found to have the highest rate of alcohol-specific deaths in the UK although rates had improved significantly over the past two decades.

The Office of National Statistics said the death rate in Scotland was twice that of England in 2018.

However, it said Scotland was the only UK nation where the rate improved significantly this century.

For men, the alcohol-specific death rate had dropped in Scotland by 25% this century, while for women the rate has fallen by 10% over the same period.

There were 29.4 deaths per 100,000 men in Scotland last year, down from 39.0 in 2001.

The lowest UK rate for men was in England where there were 14.8 male deaths per 100,000 up from 12.3 in 2001.

Three-quarters of alcohol-specific deaths were caused by alcoholic liver disease. Other causes included accidental poisoning and mental and behavioural problems caused by alcohol use.

At the same time, in 2019, 9.9 litres of pure alcohol were sold per adult in Scotland, equivalent to 19.1 units per adult per week. According to Public Health Scotland, this is the same as in 2018 and maintains the lowest level seen in Scotland.

As in 2018, the volume of pure alcohol sold was 9% higher than in England & Wales.

Meanwhile, last year, the average price of alcohol sold in the off-trade in Scotland was 62 pence per unit, an increase from 59ppu in 2018. In England & Wales the average off-trade price was 57ppu.

The average on-trade price in Scotland was £1.96 per unit - a rise of 10p in a year while in England & Wales the average on-trade price was £1.92 per unit.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are keen to understand the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown on a range of health behaviours including alcohol consumption, and have commissioned Public Health Scotland to report on alcohol sales data for 2020. 

“We know these are worrying and uncertain times for many people.  During the pandemic and beyond we would encourage people to find other ways to 'clear their head' to help cope with stress. Drinking alcohol can impact on our health and wellbeing in many different ways and we know that the more alcohol we drink, the higher the risk of health problems.

“Alcohol can reduce the immune system’s ability to fight off infectious diseases and can have an impact on the health of our heart and lungs. Choosing to cut back on how much you drink may help reduce related health risks and any associated complications linked to COVID-19.

“Keeping track of our drinking is even more important than usual during these times – the UK Chief Medical Officers recommend we don’t drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread over at least three days.”