Drinking habits in Lockdown - Part III
This is our third survey investigating how drinking habits have changed since the lockdown began on March 23rd 2020, and looks at the anticipated change in drinking habits over December 2020, compared to 2019.
Change in drinking habits since March 2020
Almost one in six (16%) UK adults reported drinking more alcohol than usual since March 2020, and just under one-fifth (19%) reported drinking less. Four in ten (39%) UK adults reported no change in their drinking habits.
Among those who reported drinking more than usual were those already drinking at increasing (between 15 and 34 units a week for women, 15 and 49 for men) or higher risk levels (more than 35 units a week for women and more than 50 units for men) (39% and 56% respectively).
In addition, furloughed workers and those either made redundant or in the process of redundancy were also more likely to report drinking more than usual since March (both 38%), compared to the national average (16%) and other working groups (between 14-19%).
Change in drinking habits with new restrictions
At the beginning of October 2020, Covid-19 restrictions increased with the introduction of the tier system, a second national lockdown in England, and further restrictions in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. We asked people whether they had experienced any changes in drinking habits since this time.
The most common changes reported were drinking 'more days a week than usual' (13%), 'drinking alone' (11%), 'drinking more alcohol in a single session' (9%), and 'having a drink earlier in the day' (8%)--such behaviours were reported more often by those drinking at increasing or higher risk levels.
Change in drinking habits since October 2020
Affect on mental and physical health
There have been widespread reports on the effect of the pandemic, and related restrictions, on mental health and other health behaviours,,,—a finding prominent in our Drinkaware Monitor as well as this survey.
Approximately one-third (32%) of UK adults felt the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health to moderate or very large extent—and this was exacerbated when we looked at drinking behaviour. UK adults drinking at increasing or higher risk levels were more likely to report negative impacts on their mental health (and all other aspects of health) due to the pandemic than adults drinking at low risk (less than 14 units per week).
In addition, parents of children under the age of 18 continue to report negative affects on their mental health (39%), work-related stress (36%), as well as their drinking (33%) and eating habits (38%), and weight (36%).
Negatively affected since the coronavirus pandemic
(% affected to a moderate, large, or very large extent)
Expected drinking habits in December 2020 compared to 2019
One in seven (14%) UK drinkers expected to drink more this December compared to last, while one-quarter (25%) expected to drink less.
Drinkers who expected to drink more were more likely to be between the ages of 35 and 54 (18%), parents of children under 18 years (17%), those made redundant/in process of redundancy (27%), those ‘drinking more than usual’ since lockdown began (32%), and those drinking at increasing (21%) or higher risk (23%) levels.
Among the reasons why people expected to drink more this December compared to last were:
- Having ‘more time to drink’ (30%)
- ‘As a reward for coping with what's going on’ (28%)
- Having ‘less contact with family and friends’ (25%)
The reasons for drinking less this December compared to last included:
- Having ‘less contact with people I usually drink with’ (41%)
- Being ‘less likely to go out to pubs/bars than I would usually’ (40%)
- Having ‘fewer festive parties than usual to attend’ (37%)
Almost four in 10 drinkers (39%) were actively trying to change their drinking habits (13%) or thought they should (26%).
The most cited techniques that UK drinkers intended to use to moderate their drinking at the beginning of 2021 were having ‘drink free days during the week’ (70%), ‘drinking within the guidelines’ (70%), ‘avoiding drinking alcohol on a work night’ (57%) and ‘setting myself a drinking limit’ (55%).
Summary and Reflections
These data reiterate the impact the pandemic and related restrictions are having on the nation's mental health and drinking behaviour, particularly among certain groups.
Individuals who have been furloughed, made redundant or are in the process of redundancy due to COVID-19, parents of children under the age of 18, and individuals already drinking in excess of the Chief Medical Officers' low risk drinking guidelines of 14 units per week, are all more likely to report negative impacts to their mental health (and other behaviours), and are more likely to report drinking more than they would usually (pre-first lockdown in March 2020).
That these groups are still noteworthy, almost 10 months after our initial research into lockdown drinking behaviours, suggests support for such groups is needed. Whether that is support from employers for parents juggling home-schooling and work, or support for those who have lost, or are at risk of losing, their jobs, the strain of this pandemic is associated with drinking behaviours that may be difficult to shift once a semblance of normality returns.
At the time of the survey, England had just emerged from a month-long national lockdown into a strengthened three-tier system. Scotland continued to assign local authorities to different ‘alert levels’ based on the prevalence of the virus. In Wales, new targeted restrictions in hospitality and leisure had been introduced, and Northern Ireland was about to emerge from a two-week ‘circuit break’.
The survey was conducted before Prime Minister Boris Johnson severely curtailed the planned easing of restrictions over the festive period, which was mirrored by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Similar to our pulse surveys conducted in May and July, we once again asked people whether they were drinking the same, more, or less than usual since lockdown began. We also asked how much people were drinking, how their drinking habits had changed since October (when further restrictions were imposed), and how they felt about their drinking habits right now.
Our Drinkaware Monitor, conducted in late August/early September, highlighted the impact of the pandemic, and related restrictions, on the nation’s physical and mental health. As such, in this survey we also asked respondents how the pandemic had affected their mental health, work-related stress, eating habits, weight, drinking habits, and loneliness.
Finally, we asked people about any anticipated change in their drinking habits in December 2020, compared to December 2019, the possible reasons behind this, and whether drinkers had any intentions to cut back in the new year.
Opinium conducted research on behalf of Drinkaware, surveying 4,003 nationally representative UK adults aged 18 and over between the 9–10th December 2020. We doubled our sample size this time around so we could look more closely at highlighted groups.
 Dawson, D. L., & Golijani-Moghaddam, N. (2020). COVID-19: Psychological flexibility, coping, mental health, and wellbeing in the UK during the pandemic. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 17, 126-134.
 Jacob, L., Smith, L., Armstrong, N. C., Yakkundi, A., Barnett, Y., Butler, L., ... & Tully, M. A. (2021). Alcohol use and mental health during COVID-19 lockdown: A cross-sectional study in a sample of UK adults. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 219, 108488.
 Niedzwiedz, C. L., Green, M. J., Benzeval, M., Campbell, D., Craig, P., Demou, E., ... & Katikireddi, S. V. (2020). Mental health and health behaviours before and during the initial phase of the COVID-19 lockdown: longitudinal analyses of the UK Household Longitudinal Study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.