Research: drinking in the UK during lockdown and beyond

July 2020 | 11 minutes

New research into how people in the UK have drunk during COVID-19 lockdown, and what their plans are as it eases. Released 3 July 2020.

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Press release: New research reveals lockdown drinking may be here to stay

Including a case study and quotes from Alcohol Change UK and the Alcohol Health Alliance.

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

More than three months have passed since pubs and restaurants closed, millions of parents started home-schooling their children, many of us shifted to working from home, and sales of alcohol spiked.

There was a great deal of speculation about whether we would all start drinking more or take the chance to cut down while we stayed in. We conducted research back in the first fortnight of lockdown to see what was really going on. Others also went on to study lockdown drinking, as summarised in a briefing published earlier this week.

Three months after lockdown began, we commissioned Opinium to conduct more research on our behalf. This time we wanted to understand people’s experience of the whole of lockdown, and to hear about their plans and concerns as lockdown eases.

Over 2,000 people completed the survey, and results were weighted to ensure they are representative of the UK population as a whole. Of these, 1,647 had drunk alcohol at some point in their lives, and over 1,400 told us they still drank alcohol before the lockdown.

More than a quarter of people think they have drunk more during lockdown

We asked all current and former drinkers to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the statement “overall, I have drunk more alcohol than usual during lockdown”; more than a quarter (28%) of people agreed.

  • Men and women were pretty evenly matched (29% and 28% agreed respectively).
  • Younger people were more likely to agree than older people – 33% of 18-34, compared to 32% of 35-54 year olds, and just 22% of people aged 55+.
  • Working people were more likely to agree that they had been drinking more than non-working people (33% compared to 20%).
  • People in ‘socio-economic group’ ABC1 were more likely to says they had been drinking more than people in group C2DE (32% compared to 24%).

We also asked about frequency of drinking and number of units drunk on a typical drinking day. There was a shift towards drinking more frequently; before lockdown 33% of people drank twice a week or more, and this rose to 38% during lockdown. Conversely, 38% of our whole sample of 2,002 people drank weekly or less and during lockdown this dropped to 33%.

One in five (21%) current and former drinkers said they were drinking more often during lockdown, while just one in ten (9%) drank less often and 55% stayed the same. The amount people drank on a typical day does not seem to have shifted as much: 13% of current and former drinkers said their typical number of units had increased, 12% said it had dropped, and 60% said it was unchanged.

Heavier drinkers, however, were more likely to tell us they had increased the amount they drank. For example, 38% of those who typically drank heavily on pre-lockdown drinking days (seven plus units) said they drank more during lockdown, compared to just 23% of those who drank two units or less on a typical drinking day.

One in five has drunk as a response to stress or anxiety

The 242% rise in visits to the advice and support pages on our website between 23 March and 23 June compared to the same period in 2019 suggests that not everyone has felt comfortable with their drinking during lockdown, and many have needed help. As lockdown starts to ease, we asked people to reflect on how they felt about their drinking over the period.

One in five (19%) of those surveyed have drunk alcohol as a way to handle stress or anxiety during lockdown. Parents of under 18s were more likely to say that they had done so (30%) than non-parents (17%) and parents of adult children (11%). Of those who drank more heavily during lockdown (nine plus units on each drinking day), 40% had drunk as a response to stress or anxiety.

The data show that current and former drinkers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were more likely than white people to agree that, during lockdown, they had drunk alcohol as a way to handle stress or anxiety (29% compared to 18%).

Once again, we also found a disparity here between working and non-working people, with working people more likely to agree than non-working people (24% compared to 10%).

More than one in three people have taken action to manage their drinking – and 7% have stopped altogether

One in six (16%) current or former drinkers said they have felt concerned about their drinking in lockdown.

And more than one in three (37%) of our sample said they have taken active steps to manage their drinking, including:

  • 15% had alcohol free days
  • 8% were careful with how much alcohol they bought
  • 4% had looked for advice online
  • 3% asked their GP for advice and support
  • 2% attended virtual support groups
  • 2% received one-to-one counselling remotely

Just 1% have spoken to a friend or family member for advice or support with their drinking.

A considerable number of current and former drinkers (7%) stopped drinking completely during lockdown – that would equate to over three million people across the UK. This was more pronounced among younger people, with 11% of 18-34 year-olds saying they have stopped drinking during lockdown.

Two in three people plan to drink the same amount or more as lockdown eases

Given that many people’s drinking increased, and many have felt concerned about their drinking during lockdown, we wanted to understand what people expect to happen as lockdown starts to ease. We asked our respondents to say how much they expected to drink in comparison to lockdown: 17% expected to drink more, 49% to drink the same amount and just over one-third (34%) to drink less.

More than one in 20 (6%) people say both that they have drunk more than usual during lockdown and that they expect that to increase still further as lockdown eases.

Just over a third (34%) of the current and former drinkers we surveyed are planning to take action to manage their drinking as lockdown eases. Young people are even more likely to be planning to do so, with 46% of 18-34 year-olds planning one or more way to control their drinking.

One in five people expect to drink alcohol in a pub within two weeks of reopening

Early July will see pubs and restaurants in England and Northern Ireland, and beer gardens in Scotland, start to reopen. Naturally, there is lots of speculation about how many people will start going out again. Will people flock back to their locals or will they feel concerned about venturing back out? Pubs and restaurants aren’t only for drinking alcohol – plenty of us enjoy visiting a pub and having a non-alcoholic drink or a meal – so we asked our survey respondents whether they plan to drink alcohol in a pub or restaurant within two weeks of reopening. One in five (19%) current and former drinkers said they do – that equates to around eight million people in the UK.

More men than women plan to drink in a pub in the next fortnight (24% of male current or former drinkers, compared to 14% female), and younger drinkers are more likely than older drinkers (27% of 18-34 year-olds, compared to 20% of those aged 35-54 and just 13% of people aged 55+).

What needs to happen next?

We can all take action to bring our drinking under control or seek out the help we need. By drinking at low risk levels and avoiding binge drinking we can reduce the impact of alcohol on the NHS and our emergency services. Alcohol causes immense pressure on these vital public services – research has shown that more than a third of ambulance time is estimated to be spent on alcohol-related incidents, and around 25% of accident and emergency departments’ caseloads relate to alcohol. [The Institute of Alcohol Studies. 2015. Alcohol's impact on emergency services.]

We also need our national and local government to support us to make healthy choices. Alcohol harm is avoidable, and we have strong evidence for the things that work to reduce it. The government has an important opportunity as we start to recover from the pandemic to put in place the right policies to protect the nation’s health from the harm caused by alcohol.

It’s also vital that treatment services for people experiencing alcohol dependence are shored up against an uncertain future. Research published on 2 July 2020 has highlighted the link between funding cuts and increased pressure on hospitals – now is the time for government to act to address this damaging trend.

If you need more support during lockdown or beyond, visit our coronavirus information and advice hub to find out more.