Drinking during lockdown: headline findings

Lucy Holmes | April 2020 | 10 minutes

Alcohol Change UK commissioned new research from Opinium to find out whether people’s drinking habits have changed during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) lockdown.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a great deal of speculation and commentary about what people are doing to cope with the lockdown. Not only are our social lives significantly limited, we are all living through uncertain and anxious times. No wonder the conversation has turned to how much we’re all drinking.

At the beginning of the crisis, we saw media coverage of people rushing to supermarkets to stock up on alcohol. We also heard that the government had permitted ‘off-licences and licenced shops selling alcohol’ to stay open even once pubs and clubs closed their doors. Recent sales data have shown that sales of alcohol rose sharply during that time. The question remained, however – were people stocking up to avoid shopping as often or out of fear of shortages, or were they actually drinking more?

Alcohol Change UK commissioned new research from Opinium to find out whether people’s drinking habits have, in fact, changed in lockdown. Are people drinking more or less often? Are we drinking in greater or smaller volumes at home? Are people concerned about their drinking? We were also interested to know whether changing drinking behaviours have had any impact on people’s wellbeing, health and household tension.

Over 2,000 people completed the survey, and results were weighted to ensure they are representative of the UK population as a whole. Around 1,800 had drunk alcohol at some point, and just over 1,500 told us they still drank alcohol before the lockdown.

We worked with Alcohol Focus Scotland and Balance North East to poll additional samples for Scotland, Wales and the North East of England.

You can view the full data tables from the Opinium survey on drinking habits during lockdown for the UK as a whole, as well as the nations and regions for:

Lockdown is changing the way that the UK drinks at both ends of the scale

People in the UK are drinking differently as a result of coronavirus. But our research shows that we aren’t all responding in the same way. Changes in drinking habits are happening in two directions.

While much media coverage has focused on people’s drinking increasing, more than one in three of the 1,555 drinkers surveyed told us that they have either stopped drinking or reduced how often they drink, since the lockdown. Six per cent have stopped drinking entirely.

However, some people are drinking more often. Around one in five drinkers (21%) told us that they have been drinking more frequently since the lockdown. This suggests that around 8.6 million UK adults are drinking more frequently under lockdown.

While almost half of drinkers told us they are drinking about the same amount on a typical drinking day, 15% said they have been drinking more per session since lockdown. Although not everyone who drinks more often also drinks more per session, our survey shows a high level of consistency; most people who are drinking more often are also drinking more on a typical drinking day, and vice versa.

It is the people who were already drinking the least often who have cut down in the greatest number. Nearly half (47%) of people who drank once a week or less have cut down or stopped drinking, compared to just over a quarter (27%) of people who drank two to six times a week, and just one in five (17%) daily drinkers. Worryingly, nearly one in five (18%) daily drinkers have further increased the amount they drink since lockdown.

Why does it matter?

Habits are formed quickly but can be hard to break. If people start drinking at risky levels now, not only do they face the risk of immediate harms (such as accidents, fires, arguments and conflict) but also the risk of their alcohol consumption rising over the medium to long term. Alcohol’s effects on mental health are particularly concerning during lockdown, when many of us are already under a great deal of stress.

There are also risks beyond the individual. One in 14 (7%) survey respondents felt that alcohol had made the tension in their household worse since lockdown. If we apply this to the UK adult population we can infer that more than 3.5 million adults are living in households where alcohol has exacerbated tension in the household.

The figures are even higher for households with children. One in seven people with children under 18 living in their household reported that alcohol had increased tensions, while only 4% felt alcohol had lessened tensions.

While these figures are likely to represent different levels of tension, it’s important to remember that in some households alcohol causes significant problems for all family members, especially children – and that lockdown is likely to make this far worse. There are over 200,000 children in England alone who live with an alcohol dependent parent or carer; you can read more about this here. You can find a briefing on lockdown, alcohol and domestic abuse here.

Managing drinking under lockdown

But, as we said earlier, that’s only half of the story. Our research shows that more than one in three (38%) people who have drunk alcohol at some point are taking active steps to manage their drinking during lockdown. This suggests that many of us know that lockdown might lead us to drink more frequently or heavily, but that we want to keep our drinking healthy. People reported:

  • Taking drink-free days (14%)
  • Being careful with the amount of alcohol they buy (9%)
  • Stopping drinking completely for the lockdown (6%)
  • Seeking advice online (4%)
  • Attending remote support groups (3%)
  • Receiving remote 1-1 counselling (3%)
  • Using apps to monitor their drinking (2%)

Many people appear to be seeking help when it comes to managing their drinking, with visits to the ‘Get help now’ section of our website increasing more than fourfold (355%) between 23 March and 13 April compared to the same period last year. In this period the we have seen more than 11,000 visitors to our coronavirus and alcohol information and advice hub.

What does all this mean?

This is the most extensive research yet into drinking during lockdown and it shows that this unprecedented period is having a significant impact on the way the UK drinks.

Managing our drinking is one of the most important things that all of us can do to look after our mental and physical wellbeing – and that’s all the more important during the COVID-19 pandemic. While some of us will find that cutting down without support is possible, others will need more help. Treatment services across the country are doing amazing work to continue providing support for those who need it, while coping with an immensely challenging situation.

Both during lockdown and once we start to recover and rebuild, protecting public health will be more important than ever. Alcohol is a key driver of health harms, so we must make all efforts to mitigate its impact. Treatment services, in particular, will need support to develop and maintain their service delivery. We will continue to call on government to ensure the resilience of these services and will support efforts to protect and sustain them. Individuals must be made aware that support is still available, and clear pathways laid out for them to access remote support.

If you need more support you can find it even during lockdown; visit our coronavirus and alcohol information and advice hub to find out more.

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Coronavirus information and advice hub

In this hub we will share information and advice on alcohol during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak - including tips for managing your drinking, links to support you can access even while self-isolating, and guidance for professionals.