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 enters the Autumn and Winter period.

[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