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Northern Ireland Alcoholics Anonymous plans virtual meetings to support members

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Empty chairs: AA meetings have to be virtual until the crisis is over

Empty chairs: AA meetings have to be virtual until the crisis is over

Empty chairs: AA meetings have to be virtual until the crisis is over

Alcoholics Anonymous in Northern Ireland has pledged that members will not be alone after it emerged that group meetings will be suspended next week.

Many AA groups are, however, making plans to have virtual meetings, with members sharing their thoughts with sponsors and fellow members online.

There are fears that coronavirus lockdowns could see addicts relapse with in-person gatherings forced to shut. But Belfast AA told this newspaper there was nothing to worry about.

"Our message is that you're not alone," said an AA representative. "We are still here for our members; it just won't be in a group setting any more.

"Some branches in Belfast and the Antrim area are in the process of setting up online meetings but, of course, this is all completely new territory for us. It'll be a case of learning by doing but I'm sure we'll get there.

"If someone needs any information, or needs to talk, they can call 028 9035 1222 and they will be referred to the appropriate person.

"And rest assured we can still put people in contact with local AA members"

He added: "We have a saying in AA - take it a day at a time - and that's what we're doing. Especially now."

There are, at present, over 180 AA groups in Northern Ireland, 25 of which are in Belfast, and over 900 on the island of Ireland, serving tens of thousands of addicts.

Another organisation that has had to think outside the box as a result of Covid-19 is Hurt, which has offices in Londonderry and Strabane.

Hurt (Have Your Tomorrows) supports individuals and their families in all stages of recovery from alcohol and other drug problems.

Centre manager Dessie Kyle explained how they have had to put up a physical barrier for protection in the wake of the pandemic.

"We offer one to one support and counselling and [on Thursday] we started some of our counselling sessions online," he said.

"That's how we see things moving forward now that we've got coronavirus to contend with and we would expect most other organisations to do the same.

"You can do group sessions online so we can hopefully still offer our clients access to all the services they need."

Danny McQuillan, director of services with Extern, the social justice charity, said it has changed how it operates.

"Extern is continuing to deliver its vital support for people living with problem drug and alcohol use, though the nature of how we do so has had to change for some services," he said.

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