Britain is facing a 'looming addiction crisis' with millions turning to alcohol to cope with the pandemic, a major report warns today.
The number of people drinking at 'high risk' levels has doubled to almost 8.5million since February, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Experts fear money worries, the stresses of juggling work and childcare and the emotional fallout from the virus has left many reaching for the bottle.
Thousands more sought help for addiction to painkillers during lockdown amid fears delays to NHS treatment could cause cases to rocket.
Doctors are worried excessive drinking during the pandemic will have a major toll on the health of the nation for years to come.
The number of people drinking at 'high risk' levels has doubled to almost 8.5million since February, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists
Professor Julia Sinclair, chair of the addictions faculty at RCPsych, said: 'Drinking at high levels not only makes people more likely to become alcohol dependent, but many will develop other health problems including liver disease, stomach ulcers, pancreatitis and depression.
'Drug-related deaths and alcohol-related hospital admissions were already at all-time highs before Covid-19.
'The looming addiction crisis cannot be tackled unless there is substantial investment from government.'
The professional body, which represents over 18,000 psychiatrists in the UK, analysed the latest data from Public Health England (PHE) on the indirect effects of Covid-19.
In surveys of more than 10,000 people PHE found that more than 8.4million are now drinking at problem levels, up from 4.8million in February.
The problem is rife among the middle class where more than four in ten are now consuming too much alcohol, up from almost 28 per cent in February.
Problem drinking also increased among blue collar workers - up from almost 15 per cent to 31 per cent over the same time period, they calculate.
Experts said the increase was being driven by a number of factors including lockdown, anxiety about the pandemic and job uncertainty.
Health officials used a clinical questionnaire to assess the amount of alcohol consumed, frequency and levels of harm and dependence.
Those who scored eight points or more on topics including 'feelings of guilt or remorse after drinking', are classed as 'high risk'.
They found one in five people - 19 per cent - were in the high-risk category, the equivalent of 8.4million people in England.
Doctors are concerned specialist addiction services will be unable to cope with the soaring demand while the NHS is also bracing itself for a surge in alcohol-related ill health.
Drinking regularly - even at low levels - can raise the risk of a host of health problems including strokes, heart attacks and liver disease.
Experts said the increase was being driven by a number of factors including lockdown, anxiety about the pandemic and job uncertainty
The trend - which experts say is fuelled by the rise in people drinking at home - could be particularly damaging in the event of a second wave.
Studies have found people with alcohol use disorder are more likely to develop serious complications if they catch Covid-19, such as acute respiratory distress syndrome.
People using drugs such as benzodiazepines such as diazepam, which are commonly prescribed for anxiety and insomnia, are also more vulnerable to the virus, research suggests.
Statistics from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS) show there were 3,459 new adult cases in April 2020 - up by a fifth on the same time last year (2,947) and the highest since 2015.
The warning comes a year after Matt Hancock vowed to end over-medicalisation 'once and for all'.
The Health Secretary made the pledge after a report found 11.5 million patients in England had received at least one prescription in the past 12 months for drugs such as antidepressants, sleeping pills, tranquilisers and opioid painkillers.
The Mail has been campaigning for greater recognition of the prescription drugs addiction crisis since March 2017.