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Written by John Timothy, Chief Executive

As lockdown loomed over a month ago, we saw numerous media articles featuring supermarket shelves stripped bare as people stockpiled alcohol and other items in the face of continued social distancing measures.

UK alcohol sales jumped by 22% in March, representing an extra £200m in sales of wine, beer and spirits compared to 2019, giving rise to concern that increased sales would be reflected in increased consumption fuelling binge drinking at home.

Several weeks on and, despite the initial fears, the emerging evidence suggests that stockpiling has not resulted in increased consumption. Consider the nation laying down wine, beer, cider and spirits in expectation of supply problems (which haven’t materialised), rather than millions of raucous isolation parties across the nation’s living rooms.

Evidence from researchers, including Alcohol Change UK, shows that around four in five British drinkers continue to drink responsibly, either by drinking the same or less compared to before lockdown. Prior to the lockdown, data from across the UK showed that 78% of adults did not drink or stuck within UK Government weekly drinking guidelines.

For some, the lockdown is providing the impetus to reduce their alcohol intake, with between a quarter and a third of drinkers cutting down or cutting out alcohol altogether.

Recently released surveys highlighting this trend include:

  • An initial survey from consumer insights agency CGA showed that 42% of respondents reported they were drinking less and 14% said they were drinking more, implying that 44% were drinking the same as before lockdown. Furthermore, 37% said they were drinking less often, while 16% said they were drinking more often. (3 April – 500 sample size)
  • A survey on homeworker wellbeing from the Institute for Employment Studies showed that 20% of respondents reported increased alcohol consumption, implying 80% were drinking the same or less. (7 April – 500 sample)
  • YouGov showed that 81% of British drinkers were drinking the same (57%) or less (24%) since lockdown. With the remaining 17% drinking more, but only 1% of which reporting ‘much more’ and 16% ‘a bit more’. Those aged 18-24 were both most likely to drink more (25%) and less (28%) when compared to other age groups. (8 April – unclear sample size)
  • An Alcohol Change UK / Opinium survey showed that 35% of British drinkers were drinking less often or had stopped drinking altogether and 21% reported drinking more often, implying 44% are drinking the same. Looking more closely, it appears that declines are being driven by the majority of drinkers who already drink less often and within Government guidelines, whilst the increase seems to be driven by those already drinking at more harmful levels. (16 April – 2,000 sample)
  • A further survey from CGA of 5,000 adults shows that 83% of Brits report drinking the same (46%), less (28%) or cutting out alcohol completely (9%), although 17% report drinking more than usual. Furthermore, nearly half (45%) of those who typically drink out weekly report drinking less than usual or cutting out alcohol altogether, with 20% reporting an increase in consumption. (1 May)

Separately, the latest figures from Kantar show that sales of low and no alcohol products at supermarkets and off-license have increased 18% in 2020 compared to the first quarter of 2019, with a rise of 32.5% immediately prior to lockdown, showing how much they have become a new part of many Brits’ responsible drinking habits.

Furthermore, while retail alcohol purchases are up, this is more than offset by a collapse in sales in pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants shuttered by the lockdown. Just taking beer as an example, sales in pubs slumped 40% in March compared to the same period last year, whilst sales in supermarkets and off-licences grew 10.6%, with overall beer sales down by 12.7% compared to last year.

Whilst the majority of the findings from the surveys are encouraging, the surveys still seem to indicate a concerning trend that around one in five are drinking more at home.

These findings should not be overlooked, especially as the lockdown and social distancing measures continue into the future.

If you are worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, Drinkaware has created a coronavirus information hub focused on providing free support and practical advice to help people cut back.

We would urge all consumers who choose to drink to do so responsibly and to look out for each other and their own physical and mental health during this difficult and unprecedented time.