Professor Ian Hamilton reflects on the data emerging on the nation’s alcohol consumption during lockdown
Contrary to popular opinion we are not all in this together when it comes to the impact lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic is having on our society. Rifts and inequality that existed prior to the virus have simply but unjustly been amplified. This divide is apparent in emerging data on alcohol consumption.
Alcohol Change UK commissioned a survey exploring the nation’s drinking habits prior to the pandemic and any changes in these since the virus begun.
In summary the survey found that those that were abstinent or drinking relatively modest amounts prior to lockdown continued to be teetotal or reduced further their modest intake of alcohol. This contrasts with the group who were drinking daily and now report they are consuming more alcohol since the pandemic began.1
Those people who have social and economic capital such as a supportive family and friend structure, are financially secure and are housed, are more likely to be trying a ‘dry COVID’. Lacking hope, having nowhere to live and suffering with poor mental health add to the risk of harmful alcohol consumption.2 As specialist alcohol services are unable to meet people face-to-face and most people who are alcohol dependent don’t recognise their problem, it is little wonder that many in the group of drinking more are in effect self-medicating. Alcohol doesn’t ask intrusive questions or have a waiting time for an appointment, overall it is widely available and more affordable than it’s ever been.
Add to this the economic data for retail sales of alcohol and an interesting picture emerges. An additional £104 million was spent on alcohol towards the end of March.3 Much of that spend was on lager and other relatively low strength alcohol products but some sprits saw a significant uptick in sales including a 92.4% rise in the sale of rum. It is difficult to know how much of this rise in sales is due to the closing of pubs and restaurants so that people are no longer drinking out but consuming at home instead.
Home drinking brings its own risks, for example people tend to pour larger measures at home, in part as they have to estimate the quantity of a sprit in the absence of pre-calibrated measures that are used in pubs and restaurants.4 People have also been stockpiling alcohol, fearful that supplies will dry up. For some, having extra alcohol in the house won’t be a problem, for others it may prove too tempting and convenient; they risk drinking more and beyond the government’s low risk guidelines of fourteen units a week.
The daily briefings by the government on coronavirus would be an ideal opportunity to gently remind people about the recommended weekly alcohol unit intake and that people should aim to have two dry days in the week. So far that message hasn’t been communicated, perhaps because the government is keen to avoid adding further restrictions to people’s lives.