As a second national lockdown starts, plunging the nation into social isolation, there are fears more of us will be drowning our sorrows. In part one of two articles, Jo Waters reports on Britain’s battle with the booze.
Mounting concerns about rising COVID-19 cases, draconian restrictions on households mixing and the ensuing loneliness this will cause, plus mass job losses, and the general winter gloom of dark evenings and grey November daytime skies, are a perfect storm for more people hitting the bottle.
With all holiday flights cancelled until further notice, non-essential shops, bars, and restaurants shut, and the threat of Christmas being cancelled, it’s certainly set to be a bleak mid-winter.
What happened during the first lockdown?
Dr Matt Parker, neuroscientist and alcohol researcher at the University of Portsmouth, says research carried out during the first three-month lockdown by Alcohol Change UK[i], found 21 per cent (equivalent to around 8.6 million people) reported they were drinking more in lockdown than previously, although nine per cent reported drinking less and 55 per cent said they drank the same amount. Most worrying was the fact that 38 per cent of heavy drinkers (those who consumed seven units of alcohol or more a day) said they were drinking more, compared to just 23 per cent of those who drank two units of alcohol a day.
A new analysis by the University of Portsmouth team, (currently awaiting publication)[ii], which used data from three ongoing lifestyle surveys on four groups of 13,453 working-age people aged from 19 to 62, found alcohol use during lockdown increased by up to 30 per cent and hazardous drinking was reported in 10 per cent of responders.
“What was interesting was that drinking increased mainly in the 30 to 50 age group particularly amongst those with impulsive type personalities, but not in younger and older age groups,” says Dr Parker.
“Stress was a major catalyst for increased drinking in this young middle-age group, possibly because some were juggling working from home and caring for school-aged children and other family responsibilities,” says Dr Parker.
“The worry is that this group could develop new drinking habits – such as starting drinking earlier in the day for instance as they have no commute or consuming larger amounts, that could be damaging to health in the long term.
“Older people and younger people in their late teens and early twenties didn’t report drinking more. It could be that they weren’t under the same sort of pressures as the middle-aged. In fact, younger people probably drank less as the pubs and bars where they would normally drink were closed,” added Dr Parker.
So, did we all booze more or not?
It’s hard to get a totally clear picture of what exactly happened during the last lockdown as far as overall alcohol consumption goes. Figures from Nielsen showed the total volume of alcohol sold in the 17 weeks to 11 July 2020 fell to 1.3 billion litres from 2 billion the previous year,[iii] despite alcohol sales from major retailers rising £1.9 billion over the same period.[iv]
“The figures are conflicting,” admits Dr Parker. “Drink sales from supermarkets soared during early lockdown – online retailer sales went up by around 300 per cent, but this may have been due to consumers stockpiling and doesn’t mean to say they drank it all and sales did drop after the first few months.
“I think the majority of people were okay with alcohol during the lockdown and some even used the lockdown as a period to reflect on their health and change unhealthy habits by drinking less alcohol and exercising more. But a significant minority did develop problematic drinking behaviour, which is a worry because it can become a clinical problem.
“With a second lockdown starting, I can’t see anything changing – those who were under stress last time will still be under pressure. It’s important people recognise they may have a problem and take steps to reduce their intake,” says Dr Parker.
Boozing impact on the economy
Drinking too much alcohol is costly for business. Too much time is lost to sickness (including depression), loss of productivity, accidents at work and poor decision making and lack of concentration. Official figures on the costs to the economy vary, but one report estimated alcohol cost the UK economy £7.3 billion a year and the total costs to society came to £21 billion.[v]
“Problem drinking habits are harder to disguise in an office environment, for instance, it will be more noticeable if you are going out after work every night or hungover in the mornings, but there may be more opportunities to drink unseen at home and the after-effects wouldn’t be as apparent,” says Dr Parker.
Alcohol doesn’t relieve stress
People who start relying on alcohol will often be saying it takes the edge off everything by helping them to handle stress and anxiety better, relax, sleep at night, or boost their mood. But Dr Parker says the reverse is true.
“Although drinking small amounts alcohol is a relaxant and in the short term which will help you relax or feel more sociable, chronic alcohol use in large amounts actually increases stress reactivity, so you will cope less well with stress,” says Dr Parker.
“If you drink heavily you are also more likely to develop sleep problems as alcohol is a sleep disruptor and makes you go straight into a deep sleep and you miss out on restorative rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, meaning you’ll wake up feeling unrefreshed. It doesn’t improve mood either as it’s a depressant and interferes with brain chemicals and hormone pathways.”