In those discombobulating early days of lockdown, one thing appeared to unite the nation beyond all others – the newfound joy of drinking on Zoom.
From virtual pub quizzes to nights in, rather than out, with friends, as lockdown stomped all over our existing social lives, we found a new freedom. No more, the need to plan ahead, don a fancy frock, book a babysitter or swallow peak time Uber costs. Now, a night at the pub meant a night in the house, and as the logistics got easier, for many, tolerance levels rose.
For a while, my social feeds suggested everyone was on the sauce almost all of the time, the quarantini o’clock posts coming earlier each day. And I’m sure I’m far from the only one whose world seemed in a near permanent countdown to corkscrew time.
Hell, the government practically encouraged it, declaring off-licenses ‘essential’ for the duration. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, as it happens. Alcohol use has skyrocketed in lockdown, according to two separate reports that warn the upswing in alcohol dependency and booze-related health problems may now be our new normal.
The Commission on Alcohol Harm says its evidence indicates alcohol is creating huge problems for family life – children with an alcohol-dependent parent are five times as likely to develop eating disorders, twice as likely to have a drink problem and three times as likely to consider suicide.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, the Commission’s chairwoman, has now urged the government to reconsider calls for minimum per-unit pricing to be applied in England, saying: “We need to finally acknowledge the true scale of the harm caused by alcohol, which goes far beyond individuals who drink, and put the responsibility squarely with the harmful product itself.”
She points towards minimum pricing measures in Scotland, where the introduction of a 50p per unit minimum pricing structure, introduced in 2018, pushed alcohol sales to a 24-year low.
But amid our strange current reality, would higher pricing really make a difference? Beyond the drinks industry and its obvious interest, critics of pricing policies argue the impact is felt most keenly on the cheapest drinks options, and not on the higher priced wines and spirits most popular with the Zoom quiz brigade.
A distinctly unscientific Instagram poll carried out by The Flock suggests those critics may have a point. Of the 328 readers who responded, 50 per cent said they’d drunk more than usual during lockdown – but a staggering 85 per cent said price hikes wouldn’t have any impact on their behaviour.
For some, price is not a consideration. “I barely drink anyway these days so it’s already a treat. Price wouldn’t change that,” said one respondent. “We only drink special drinks on special occasions”, read another reply. “We tend to treat ourselves to a fancy bottle anyway,” said another.
For others, who drink more regularly, price wasn’t a factor either. “Alcohol has provided an escape hatch from the grim realities of the pandemic,” said one, while another explained drinking in lockdown “was a total coping mechanism”.
It’s a picture that doesn’t surprise Janey Lee Grace, founder of The Sober Club, a support network for those abstaining from alcohol that has seen its membership increase since March. “I asked our members about pricing, and they said that when they were drinking, they would have looked for special offers on alcohol – but if they were hell bent on drinking, they would just adjust their budget to accommodate the cost, whatever it was,” she says. “Cheap alcohol encourages people to drink more, of course. But putting prices up just blurs the boundaries a little.”
It’s a sentiment that’s also familiar to Catherine Renton, a freelance writer who’s been sober for more than three and a half years. “I honestly don’t think minimum pricing would have had an impact on my drinking. If the cost of alcohol increased, I would have found a way to fund my habit rather than cut down.”
So, if pricing isn’t a factor here, what is? Overwhelmingly, it seems the driver behind our increased booziness is anxiety.
Of the 1,647 people surveyed this summer by Alcohol Change UK, a staggering 19 per cent said their lockdown drinking had been fuelled by stress and anxiety. The impact of stress was most acute among working adults, and worse still among those with children under the age of 18, where the link between alcohol and anxiety was cited by 30 per cent of drinkers.
The charity saw a 242 per cent rise in visits to its advice pages between March and June, suggesting not everyone was comfortable with their intake in early lockdown. And tellingly, the research found the most dramatic rise in levels of drinking among higher earners – those in the ABC1 social group for whom pricing would arguably be less influential, stress more acute.
Worryingly, both Alcohol Change UK and The Sober Club have spoken to previously abstinent drinkers who fell off the wagon – something Catherine Renton, who quit drinking to tackle her own anxiety, says she can very much sympathise with.
“Alcohol is still marketed as a cure for stress when in many cases it’s the cause of more angst,” she explains. “I found early lockdown really tricky as a sober person. It felt like everyone was using alcohol to cope with the pandemic or having a virtual party I wasn’t invited to because I don’t drink. I teetered on the edge of relapse more than once but, in July, something clicked. I realised I had gotten through the first half of the worst possible year sober, so I felt invincible after that!”
But while Renton has remained sober, Lee Grace says she’s seen many who have been less successful in controlling their response to stress. “I don’t think there has been any support to prevent people drinking,” she sighs. “If anything, the messages sent out were ‘stay home’…oh, but let’s keep the off licences open because they are ‘essential’
“Very little mention was made at any point about focusing on health and wellbeing, and the link between alcohol and anxiety cannot be underestimated. When people felt very alone during lockdown, many had their malbec moments. Alcohol is still seen as the societal norm, so choosing not to drink, which is hard at any time, seemed harder.”
People, not pricing
This week, socialisation rules have changed once again. While pubs remain open, the call to Zoom drink may be lessened. But with drinking at home having now become a habit, Alcohol Change UK warns the picture is getting worse, not better. Many of those who increased their drinking in lockdown, it says, have continued to drink more afterwards, with 66 per cent of people saying they expected their drinking levels to continue to increase. By comparison, just six per cent expected to cut back down.
For the charity’s chief executive, Dr Richard Piper, the overwhelming message is that people need access to support, and fast. “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.
“With many people, including already-heavy drinkers, emerging from lockdown drinking more than before, this harm is only set to worsen. But none of this is inevitable. By properly funding alcohol treatment services, the Government can save the NHS money, aid the national recovery effort and save lives.”
Meanwhile, for Lee Grace, support is crucial – but so is changing the view we view problem drinking. “So much more needs to be done to challenge the idea that if you aren’t at ‘rock bottom’ then you are a happy social drinker,” she says.
“The reality is that most people who drink are grey area drinkers, somewhere on the ‘booze elevator’. And it’s when things tip, as they did in lockdown, that they can find themselves going down on that elevator, until it becomes so much harder to step off…”
Are you concerned about your drinking? Alcohol Change UK has created a coronavirus and alcohol hub where people can get information and advice about managing their intake at this time, as well as links to support and treatment services. Visit the hub here.