Post-lockdown trends: The moderate majority continue to drink responsibly, as Brits cautiously return to pubs

John Timothy, CEO Portman Group

Despite the easing of lockdown restrictions, we have maintained an array of activity to ensure we continue to monitor drinking behaviours in the UK. The Portman Group has its own activity tracker measuring the impact of COVID-19 on the UK’s drinking choices and we continue to examine polls commissioned by an array of external organisation including Drinkaware, Alcohol Change UK and Public Health England to give us the broadest possible picture of what’s going on.

We have also commissioned two sets of research with YouGov, the first in May 2020 to explore drinking across the UK during lockdown. In August, we sought to explore any changes since the initial easing of lockdown restrictions across the UK and to understand whether people were returning to the hospitality sector.

We were the first organisation to explore self- reported unit intake and changes in drinking behaviour during lockdown, and repeating the research with YouGov has allowed us to retain the poll methodology and provide useful comparisons between the two surveys to understand the extent of change and identify areas of potential harm.

The moderate majority continue to drink responsibly

Our survey results refute media-fuelled fears where headlines trumpeted a so-called ‘Super Saturday’ with the reopening of pubs in England potentially fuelling increased levels of irresponsible drinking. In fact, the evidence of our research, and others, showed that the moderate majority continued, and still continue, to drink responsibly and within the Government’s low risk guidelines of 14 units a week.

88% of UK drinkers reported drinking the same (55%), less (26%) or have cut alcohol out altogether (7%) since the hospitality sector reopened compared to before lockdown. This is a large increase compared to our previous survey in May 2020, where 65% of UK adults reported drinking the same or less compared to before lockdown.

This can be partly explained by a collapse in the number of those reporting drinking more, down from 35% during lockdown to 8% post-lockdown, suggesting that any increases in consumption during lockdown have been temporary, with many drinkers returning to pre-lockdown levels.  Nevertheless, we encourage anyone concerned about their own, or another person’s, drinking to visit Drinkaware or the NHS online for free advice and guidance and would recommend that people read Drinkaware’s blog in our COVID-19 series here.

Our results also show that at a whole population-level, there appears to have been little impact on weekly unit intake compared to our last survey, with the moderate majority of drinkers in the UK continuing to drink responsibly within the Chief Medical Officer 14 unit-a-week lower risk guidelines.

This research reinforces the data available from Public Health England that, on the whole, COVID-19 has had little impact on overall unit intake, with self-reported mean weekly alcohol units consumed in all adults remaining around 11 units.[i]

Poll of polls

In terms of the broader picture across lockdown and beyond, an analysis of 22 polls suggests that the moderate majority were consistently drinking the same or less compared to pre-lockdown. Overall, more than three quarters of people drank the same or less compared to before lockdown, with a quarter drinking less and fewer than a quarter drinking more.

Indeed, our previous survey in May suggesting that around a third were drinking more, appears to have been an outlier compared to the 21 other polls.

Brits cautiously return to pubs

Surveys are, of course, only able to capture a moment in time, often accurate when undertaken but quickly surpassed by events. In terms of our commentary, the rules have changed from the moment we released the details as local ‘lockdowns’ saw restrictions on socialising in pubs and bars, and nationally a ten o’clock curfew put in place across the UK. As such, the information we gathered about people returning to pubs between two and six weeks after the respective lockouts were lifted (NI the first to reopen 3 July and Wales the last on 3 August) referred to a very specific period of time. Interesting for looking at an initial public response, but maybe only ever relevant for that period. Looking at the ten o’clock closing times – and the implicit threat of further restrictions if transmission rates do not slow – means that any additional survey work of pub visits will inevitably be different.

So, with the caveat that we should be cautious in extrapolating too much for today from historic survey results, we can recognise that drinkers in the UK are cautiously returning to pubs and bars, though there appears to be differing levels of enthusiasm across the UK and between age groups. Almost half (42%) of English adults said they had returned to pubs and bars since they reopened, compared to 37% in Wales, 30% in Scotland and 26% in Northern Ireland.

The youngest generation (18-24) – so-called Generation Z – were the most likely to have visited pubs and bars since they reopened, with more than half (51%) visiting at least once. The older generation were slower to return to pubs and bars, with 36% of those aged over 45 having visited pubs and bars in recent weeks.

The hospitality sector has taken extensive measures to ensure that social distancing can occur while retaining the atmosphere that customers seek.

Whilst Government data suggests that only around 5% of infections out of the home are related to the hospitality sectors,[ii] our survey suggests that fears around COVID-19 remain a prime concern for consumers. This will likely be familiar to businesses across many industries, with recent data suggesting shopper footfall remains more than a third (34.9%) lower on UK highstreets compared to last year, whilst more than 4 in ten working adults (43%) continue to avoid the commute and to work from home and London Underground journeys remain down by 72% compared to 2019.[iii]

Other key reasons cited by those visiting less than usual or yet to return to the included the impact of social distancing measures as well as changing economic circumstances meaning that people have less money to spend, for example because they have lost their job or have previously been furloughed.

This illustrates the ongoing difficulties facing the UK hospitality trade. Data from the British Beer and Pub Association shows that more than a third (37%) of pubs in England reported that they could not break even a month after reopening. Furthermore, 25% of brewing and pub sector business said they did not feel that their business was sustainable beyond the end of March 2021.[iv]

Our findings reinforce the warnings from UK Hospitality and the British Beer and Pub Association that, despite the successful rollout of social distancing measures across the industry, additional support may be needed to help secure the long-term future of the many long-loved local pubs and bars as the sector en

[i] Public Health England: Wider impacts of COVID-19 on health: summary, 27 August 2020

[ii] UK Hospitality, 22 September 2020

[iii][iii] Daily Mail, 1 September 2020 / City AM, 3 September 2020 / Telegraph, 3 September 2020

[iv] British Beer and Pub Association: More than a third of pubs cannot break even one month after reopening, 4 August 2020

The Portman Group’s search for a new Chair has come to an end, with the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK appointing former senior civil servant Philip Rycroft.

Philip was most recently the Permeant Secretary to the Department for Exiting the EU. He brings to the role a rare mix of both business and government experience, having undertaken senior positions in both the public and private sectors.

Philip began his civil service career at the Scottish Office in 1989, followed by a secondment to the Cabinet Office for Sir Leon Brittan in the European Commission. He later served as the Director-General for Business and Innovation at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, before becoming Director-General for Innovation and Enterprise and Chief Executive of the Better Regulation Executive. He was the Director-General to the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office serving Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP from 2012 up to the May 2015 election.

His private sector experience includes time as the Director for Corporate Affairs at Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa, a former Fortune 500 investment holding company. In addition to this, he has valuable experience in the alcohol sector, having worked as an adviser to Scottish & Newcastle plc (since acquired by Heineken).

2020 has been a time of exceptional growth for the Portman Group as five additional members have joined – Asahi, Aston Manor, Campari, SHS Drinks and Thatchers. Rycroft is eager to look to the group’s future and believes bringing more producers and retailers, large and small, into the fold is crucial. Currently, the Portman Group has more than 130 organisations including producers, pub companies, retailers and member bodies signed up as Code Signatories, committed to upholding the Code of Practice.

Speaking about his new role, Philip Rycroft said: “It is with great pleasure that I join the Portman Group, the first industry regulator committed to supporting moderation and responsible drinking. Like so many industries, drinks producers and retailers are facing into an incredibly tough external environment and I’m keen to play my part, steering the Portman Group to showcase their best practice and commitment to social responsibility.”

“For the good of the self-regulatory model I hope to maintain and then accelerate the exceptional membership growth of 2020. We have a huge cross section of support for the Portman Group model shown in the range of bodies who are signatories to the Code. If more joined us as members, the future of the industry could be built using their perspectives. They would also benefit from the chance to work with their peers, accessing unrivalled policy and communications analysis as well as fast-tracked regulatory advice and training services.”

John Timothy, Chief Executive of the Portman Group says:

“Securing someone of Philip’s stature as our new Chair is a real coup for the Portman Group. We are privileged to have his insight, knowledge and expertise. He understands the mechanics of the Scottish and UK Governments as well as the motivations of socially conscious businesses. We are eager for him to begin shaping the next stage of the Portman Group’s journey as we work with Government to secure the right result on the obesity strategy, navigate the impact of COVID-19 on the industry, and enhance opportunities for across society for greater take-up of exciting new low and no products.”

Philip Rycroft replaces former Chair Sir Martin Narey who stepped down in November 2019.

In response to the Royal College of Psychiatrists report into COVID-19 alcohol behaviours, John Timothy, CEO of the Portman Group, the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK, commented:

“Figures from Public Health England show alcohol intake rose for a minority during the lockdown but, crucially it has since fallen back. This is echoed by our own studies. 

“Of course, not all increases are a cause for a concern – many people still drink within Government low risk guidelines. Nevertheless it is important not to disregard the small minority who may now be drinking to harmful levels. We support targeted measures aimed at giving these people the help they need.”

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Commenting on the publication of the AHA Commission on Alcohol Harm report, Portman Group Chief Executive John Timothy said:

“There is little evidence to support the need for the radical measures the AHA would like to see. The UK is on an evolving journey in its relationship with alcohol and has made major strides over the past 20 years. Almost 4 in 5 UK adults either choose not to drink or stay within the CMOs’ low risk guidelines. Underage drinking is also on a consistent downward trend and almost all measures of alcohol-related harm are in decline.

“The small minority of people that persistently misuse alcohol need targeted support to break the damaging cycle of dependency. That is a difficult but important task that has the industry’s full support. But it cannot be used to justify a tranche of new measures that would disproportionately penalise ordinary men and women who enjoy a drink and do so responsibly.”

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In response to the Social Market Foundation’s report into no and low alcohol drinks, John Timothy, CEO of the Portman Group, the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK, commented:

“The Portman Group welcomes the SMF’s  report which highlights positive engagement by consumers with no and low alcohol products. They are a useful tool for many in cutting down, or cutting out, alcohol.

 “We agree with the report’s conclusion that the current product descriptors should be simplified, putting us in line with our European neighbours. We have long called for this and continue to work with officials to make the positive case for change.

 “However, we are disappointed to see the report repeat the baseless allegations that the Portman Group’s Code of Practice is somehow not applied to regular strength drinks. Our recent market audit showed 95% compliance with the Code – strong evidence of the effectiveness of self-regulation. The vast majority of producers market their products responsibly, including those in the low and no space.”

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Today marks the launch of the Portman Group’s, inaugural blog series – ‘Responsible actions to COVID-19’. This series features alcohol charities, partnerships and industry bodies and looks at the impact of COVID-19 on the alcohol sector, demonstrating the responsible and rapid response from the industry.

The imposing of lockdown was an unprecedented measure which impacted the daily lives of everyone in our society. The closure of pubs, bars and restaurants presented a new challenge to the industry and alcohol sales to fall. Despite this, the industry made changes, responded responsibly, and supported their communities.

A new blog will be shared every Monday and Thursday and will feature posts from across the alcohol-related sector. Over the coming weeks, blog posts will be shared from a number of organisations including, the British Beer and Pub Association who will explain how pubs played a greater role in their communities than ever before. The Scotch Whisky Association share their rapid response and production of ethanol for hand sanitiser. The Portman Group also share the impactful measures taken by members and research on drinking habits during lockdown. Additionally, Drinkaware will share how to best support those whose drinking has increased to higher levels.

We also look to our affiliate organisations, the Scottish Alcohol Industry Partnership and the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, for their perspectives on the impact of lockdown in Scotland and the coronavirus response in the wider world. Finally, we will gain the perspective of ClubSoda, the leaders of the Mindful Drinking Movement, who will discuss their members experience during lockdown and the take up of no alcohol alternatives

Emma McClarkin, CEO of The British Beer and Pub Association, had this to say about their blog contribution: “The pub sector stepped up to the plate to help local communities while suffering almost impossible business challenges during the lockdown. We welcome the opportunity to tell the story of pubs up and down the country through the Portman Group blog series and are equally interested to understand the experiences of other sectors and learn from them”.

Finally, John Timothy, CEO of the Portman Group said: “Navigating COVID-19 has been a challenge for all in our industry, this blog series is a coming together of the bodies involved in alcohol. We are delighted to be able to shine a spotlight on the actions of a sector acting fast and responsibly during the pandemic. This blog draws the perspectives of the major champions of responsible action, to understand how they responded and to learn for the future”.

The Portman Group, the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK, is delighted to welcome Thatchers Cider as its newest member. Their introduction to the group marks the latest addition in a wave of new members joining in 2020. They are the fourth company to join this year, bringing membership to twelve.

Thatchers is an award-winning family-run cider maker, established in 1904 supplying the on and off trade in the UK, Europe and Australia. It is also the fourth family business to join the Portman Group and bolsters the cider community presence within the Council’s make up.

Martin Thatcher, Managing Director of Thatchers commented: “As a family-run cider business, we care about the long term and investing in the next generation. This can mean planting apple trees that will bear fruit for decades to come, establishing our Foundation to support the local community, or, as we are proud to do today, joining the Portman Group to support responsible alcohol consumption and tackle harm.”

Chief Executive of the Portman Group John Timothy said: “We are delighted to have Thatchers join the Portman Group as a new member. Their additional support will ensure we continue to demonstrate that the alcohol industry is responsible and committed to evolving as society does.

“Now more than ever, we need support from the industry’s most reputable companies to help us shape the conversation surrounding alcohol. We encourage producers and retailers, both large and small, to talk to us about how they can play their part in engaging with the key policy challenges and aid us in telling the story of this socially responsible sector.”


Speaking about the AHA October 2019 audit, published in August 2020, John Timothy, CEO of the Portman Group, the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK said:

“This report is utter nonsense, based on out of date information and the typical anti-alcohol ideology of the AHA who can’t stand the fact that the moderate majority can sensibly enjoy a drink and stick within the 14 unit guidance.

“Take just two of our Portman Group members, Heineken and Budweiser Brewing Group, who represent over half of the UK’s beer and cider market. They already carry full CMO guidance on over 60% of their products and they will have nearly completed the process by the end of the year. On nutrition information over 95% of products carry this on labels. Our members are leaders in the industry, ensuring that for over 30 years that the sector is responsible and in that time have seen significant declines in alcohol consumption, youth drinking, drink driving and alcohol related crime.”

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Lockdown was predicted to cause a sharp rise in alcohol consumption and binge-drinking but most UK drinkers (65%) actually drank the same, less or stopped drinking altogether during lockdown compared to previously. In the weeks following the reopening of the hospitality sector, this trend has continued. Brits are continuing to drink in moderation, but more and more are choosing to do so at the pub. Almost half (42%) of adults in England have made a long-awaited return to their local, following the reopening of hospitality on 4 July.

Brits continue to drink in moderation despite the reopening of pubs

The latest YouGov survey commissioned by the Portman Group (2,296 UK adults, 12-13 August) shows that the moderate majority continues to prevail in the UK, even with the much-celebrated reopening of pubs. In fact, of those who drink alcohol, even more people are drinking the same, less, or have cut out alcohol altogether, than during lockdown. These figures have now increased from 65% (May 2020) to 88%. This shows an ongoing trend of people drinking less during this unprecedented time and supports data by Nielsen which showed that in the 17-week period covering lockdown to 11 July 2020 Brits consumed almost 1.3bn litres of alcohol during the UK’s lockdown period, almost half the 2bn litres consumed in the same period last year.

Any initial suggestion that people were beginning to drink more has not lasted.

  • 88% of UK drinkers are drinking the same (55%), less (26%) or have cut alcohol out altogether (7%) since the hospitality sector reopened compared to before lockdown.
  • Concerningly 8% of drinkers said they were drinking more since the hospitality sector reopened than before lockdown. We encourage anyone concerned about their own, or another person’s, drinking to visit Drinkaware or the NHS online for free advice and guidance.
  • The moderate majority of UK drinkers (66%) continue to drink responsibly, within the Chief Medical Officer guidelines of 14 units per week. Weekly intakes remain similar to before lockdown.

Almost half of English pubgoers return to their local

While many of us continue to drink at home, a great number of Brits have resumed much loved habits of gathering at their local pub. Pubs have put in place diligent social distancing measures to ensure that communities can revisit pubs while feeling safe and secure. Brits are responding well to the ‘new normal’ with almost three quarters (72%) saying social distancing would not deter them from a return to the pub.

It’s not just drinkers who have been making the most of the pubs reopening, pubs have long been a happy and inclusive environment for all members of the community. The recent period has seen Brits making a cautious return to many much-loved venues outside of just hospitality, including shops and beauty salons, and it seems that, despite one in eight (13%) feeling the pinch after months of furlough or even job loss, we are still setting aside time and money to return to our favourite institutions, something that has been made clear with the popularity of August’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

Looking at changes in data throughout the UK, it is clear that English pubgoers are the most likely to have returned to the pub, with 42% having been at least once. This is in comparison to over a quarter of adults (26%) in Northern Ireland who haven’t visited once.

Pubs reopened later in Scotland (15 July) and Wales (3 August), which may be why locals appear to have been more cautious to return. Since reopening, just 37% of Welsh adults and 30% of Scottish adults have revisited pubs, highlighting that adults in England have been the most determined to prop up the bar again.

‘Gen-Z’ celebrate the summer at the pub

Gen-Z in particular have been seen to make an eager return to the pub. The youngest generation (18-24) are the most likely to have visited pubs and bars since they reopened, with over half (51%) visiting at least once, whilst the older generation are most likely to avoid pubs and bars, with 64% of those aged over 45 not having visited pubs and bars since they reopened. However, bucking the idea that congregating leads to excessive consumption, generation sensible maintains a moderate approach with only one in seven (14%) 18-24 year olds having increased their drinking since the hospitality sector reopened, compared to before the UK lockdown

Speaking about the results of the survey, John Timothy, CEO of the Portman Group, the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK, commented:

“During the course of the COVID-19 crisis there has been a fear that many people would turn to alcohol and that misuse would increase. Yet the British public are showing continued moderation both at home and, happily, now back at the pub. It’s great to see people supporting their community pubs while drinking sensibly and maintaining social distancing”.

An audit of the alcohol market has found high levels of compliance to industry standards. While some claim that alcohol producers do not provide the right information on bottles, in reality this isn’t the case. Independent auditors and the Independent Complaints Panel’s decisions show 95% adherence to regulatory standards.

The Portman Group, the social responsibility and regulatory body for alcohol in the UK, has independently audited the alcohol market to assess the industry’s compliance with the latest edition of the Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks. The previous audit took place in 2012 showing 92% compliance – so this increase to almost 95% demonstrates an increasingly responsible alcohol sector which adheres and supports an enhanced regulatory regime.

The Code is now in its sixth edition. The update was launched last year, in response to changes in society and expectations of the industry. The update introduced new guidance to protect the vulnerable and rules that outlawed marketing considered to cause serious or widespread offence. Other changes included a new definition of immoderate consumption and tightening of the rules surrounding links to illegal behaviour and suggestions of mind-altering qualities.

The independent audit carried out by Zenith Global, sampled 500 products and assessed them against the updated Code. Just 29 were flagged for potentially breaching the code. The rule most likely to be breached was the stipulation that products, promotions and packaging must not appeal to under 18s. 20.7% of flagged products were deemed to risk breaching this rule; with 17.2% of products breaking the rules regarding placing undue emphasis on alcoholic strength and association with violence, bravado and illegal behaviour.

Interestingly, beer accounted for 60% of flagged products. In addition to this, the majority (67%) of products that were highlighted for potentially breaking the Code were produced overseas, underscoring the need for importers to consider how products adhere to the UK regulation.

Speaking about the audit, John Timothy, Chief Executive of the Portman Group, commented: “The industry has demonstrated that it is committed to the rules and guidelines set out by the Portman Group Code. It is testament to the support to industry regulation from the sector that 95% of products on sale are compliant. This is a sector that by-and-large takes its responsibilities seriously.

Jenny Watson CBE, Chair of the Independent Complaints Panel, said: “The Code is in place to ensure the alcohol industry remains responsible and is updated when necessary to ensure it reflects shifts in both the industry and society. The ICP works to assess any potential breaches to the Code following complaints from members of the public. In this case, the Panel received relatively few complaints following the audit that accompanies the introduction of a new Code, but it remains important to ensure the industry continues to strive for the highest standards possible.”

Key Facts

  • The Code of Practice on Naming Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks was first introduced in 1996. This is the sixth edition of the Code.
  • The Code sets standards for socially responsible product packaging in the UK.
  • The Audit was commissioned by the Portman Group but the rulings on individual products were made by an Independent Complaints Panel.
  • There are over 140 signatories to the Portman Group Code.
  • Zenith Global randomly sampled 500 products. 29 products were identified as a potential breach by the auditor. The Portman Group took action to resolve the concerns.
    • Six of these related to food labelling law and were referred to Trading Standards.
    • The remaining 23 were considered under the Code, with 14 working with the advice service to resolve the issues.
    • Ultimately, just nine products progressed to the Independent Complaints Panel (ICP). Three of the products were found not to be in breach while the remaining six products breached the Code.
    • Most producers took voluntary action to withdraw or amend their packaging.
  • The audit found the industry to be 94.8% (nearly 95%) compliant with the Portman Group Code of Conduct after the ICP rulings.

For more information contact:

Nicola Bates

Director of External Affairs

07730 525 701 or

Notes to editors

  1. John Timothy is available for broadcast interviews upon request.
  2. The Portman Group was formed in 1989. It is the alcohol industry regulator and social responsibility body. It has over 130 Code signatories from producers, retailers and membership bodies.
  3. The Portman Group is funded by twelve member companies: Asahi UK Ltd; Aston Manor Cider; Bacardi; Brown-Forman; Budweiser Brewing Group UK&I; Carlsberg UK; Diageo GB; Heineken UK; Mast-JäegermeisterUK; Pernod Ricard UK, SHS Drinks and Thatchers’.