Without action, lockdown drinking habits may be here to stay, according to research commissioned by Alcohol Change UK. The charity found that more than one-quarter (28%) of people who have ever drunk alcohol think they have been drinking more during lockdown. As lockdown eases and pubs start to reopen, 49% expect to continue drinking as they have been during lockdown, and 17% expect to drink more. One in five (19%) people who have ever drunk alcohol plan to visit a pub within 2 weeks of reopening – that’s an estimated 8 million people across the UK.
The UK survey of more than 2000 people suggests that heavier lockdown drinking will not end spontaneously when it eases. Those polled included 1647 current and former drinkers. Many have been drinking more frequently during lockdown. Of those surveyed, 19% have drunk alcohol as a way to handle stress or anxiety. Parents of under 18-year-olds 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.
Increasing numbers seeking support
More than one in three (37%) people have taken active steps to manage their drinking during lockdown, for example by having alcohol-free days (15%), being careful with the amount of alcohol they buy (8%), looking for advice online (4%), or asking their GP for advice and support (3%). One in 50 (2%) people have attended support groups, and the same proportion have received one-to-one counselling online or by phone. Just 1% have spoken to a friend or family member for advice or support.
This is reflected in the increased number of people seeking help on Alcohol Change UK’s website. Back in April, the charity reported a 355% increase in traffic to the ‘Get help now’ section of its website compared to the same period the year before. This lift in traffic has continued throughout lockdown; in 3 months, traffic to the ‘Get help now’ section was 242% higher than the same period last year, with 38,388 visitors in total compared to 11,219 in 2019. For the website as a whole traffic was up 60%.
As it stands, only one in five dependent drinkers in the UK are receiving treatment. These figures suggest that, post lockdown, we may see a significant increase in the number of people seeking support with their drinking. Dr Richard Piper, Chief Executive of Alcohol Change UK, said: “From the very start of lockdown, charities and treatment services have warned of the impact on people’s drinking. This research shows that we were right to worry. One in five of us has drunk more often than usual over the past 3 months, and this research suggests that those drinking more often during lockdown are less likely than others to cut back as it eases.”
Dr Piper said that the UK government must take the harm caused by alcohol seriously. In England in 2018/19, there were 1.26 million hospital admissions related to alcohol consumption, and every day in the UK more than twenty people die as a result of alcohol harm. With many people, including already-heavy drinkers, emerging from lockdown drinking more than before, this harm is only set to worsen.
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: “It is concerning that one in five drinkers increased their alcohol consumption even very early into lockdown. If we are to emerge from this pandemic as a healthier society, the Government must start planning a long-term prevention strategy to empower people across the UK to make healthy lifestyle choices and to ensure that those who are drinking at dangerous levels get the support they need.”