More community-based detox addiction services are needed now to combat Northern Ireland's dismal record on alcohol deaths, experts have warned.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists in Northern Ireland (RCPsych NI) also warned that alcohol addiction is likely to become an increasing problem due to the Covid crisis.
According to RCPsych NI, patients who need treatment for alcohol addiction are currently waiting more than two months for a hospital bed.
It comes as demand on the health service as a result of Covid-19 has seen a reduction in the number of inpatient addiction services in all health trusts.
The Western Trust is the only trust which currently offers community-detox services and receives 400 enquiries across the region every year.
Community-based detox programmes are recommended by NICE, the body which provides national guidance on standards of care, for people who drink more than 15 units of alcohol a day. They are organised by a community addiction service and patients' GPs. They can be used instead of admission to hospital - reducing demand on inpatient beds and waiting times.
Dr Donna Mullen from RCPsych NI said: "Northern Ireland has had a long-standing problem with alcohol addiction, and we suspect the problem will only get worse due to lockdown and Covid-19. The truth is alcohol addiction, whether living through a pandemic or not, shatters the lives of individuals and their families, but treatment is available and can be effective.
"We know alcohol addiction is sometimes overlooked by a focus on drug addiction - when addictions services are planned. Community-based withdrawal programmes and services have been proven to work, but not everyone has access to them. This needs to change. We need to focus on getting those who are addicted to alcohol, better and reduce the alarming rise in deaths and self-harm."
The number of alcohol-related deaths in Northern Ireland reached a record high in 2019 with 336 deaths. The figure is more than a third higher than 10 years ago and an increase of 18% since 2018. Alcohol deaths also costs the public purse around £900m annually.
Health Minister Robin Swann said: "I believe we have to do more to prevent and address the harm that substance use causes. My Department recently issued a public consultation on a new substance use strategy, during which we had a range of engagement events - including with service users and their families.
"The consultation has now closed and the process of analysing responses will now begin. We will then develop the final strategy in conjunction with key stakeholders, including service users, and bring this forward for agreement and publication."