Supporting Communities – the Drink Sector’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic brought with it a set of grave and unforeseen challenges for people the world over. The imposition of lockdown and consequent shuttering of pubs, bars and clubs meant that the alcohol industry was uniquely challenged. Throughout, the industry has stepped up to responsibly respond to the needs of its staff, communities, and the public. The reach of their efforts has been staggering with pubs and producers supporting the NHS, charities, communities, and hospitality staff.  This has been done in a robust and considered manner ensuring the industry’s commitment to supporting those affected by the pandemic has remained at the core.

As the social responsibility and regulatory body for the sector, the Portman Group is uniquely placed to draw on the work and achievements of the diverse bodies, charities and companies involved in alcohol.

Last year, we ran a blog series, working with key players in the alcohol industry, to highlight the lessons learned during the first lockdown and next steps for the future. As we publish the Supporting Communities – the Drinks Sectors Response to the COVID-19 report, we are conscious that we have not reached the end point for COVID-19. Normality is still at a distance  but it is still worth  taking time for the sector to share its best practice. It will allow others to be inspired by the activities of the industry and adopt the ideas to help respond while restrictions are still in place.

This blog marks, not only the launch of our report, but also our second blog series on the COVID-19 response. We will be sharing bi-weekly case studies from those across the industry who have played an integral role in the relief effort.

Hands – Sanitiser production

One of the first challenges the industry stepped up to help solve was the shortage of hand sanitiser in the UK. At the start of the pandemic, hospitals, care facilities, businesses and homes were crying out in desperate need of sanitiser, following a 255% increase in demand (Kantar, February 2020).

Across the industry, producers donated high strength ethanol and turned their hands to creating sanitiser. The Scotch Whisky Association led the coordination of the work and provided an online hub to link whisky distilleries with related industry suppliers. It resulted in the donation of 1.5 million litres of ethanol a week at the peak of production – enough to supply each UK household with a bottle of sanitiser every week.

Face to Face – keeping communities connected

Local pubs across the country played a huge role as community hubs and lifelines to those living in isolated areas or conditions. From organising volunteers, raising money, donating food, and operating takeaway services pubs continue to offer support to local communities in this third lockdown.

To give just a few examples of the great support provided by pubs everywhere, the Cross Keys in Leicestershire delivered the Mother’s Day lunches they had going uneaten in their kitchen to families in the local area instead. The Brawn’s Den in Durham donated their surplus stock to food banks and the vulnerable. Pubs including The Horse & Jockey in Melling, The Clifton Arms in Blackburn and the Plough & Harrow in Leytonstone also took measures to help the relief effort.

Portman Group members have also donated money, time, PPE and low and no alcohol products to NHS trusts, charities, and food banks to ensure the vulnerable are supported.

Space – looking after pubs

Multiple pub closures have meant that these crucial community hubs are under threat of permanent closure. In order to protect pubs, many producers offered rent concessions, replaced unused kegs and provided protective equipment to publicans to help alleviate financial pressures.

Organisations, including the Society of Independent Brewers Association and the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, created online hubs to provide key advice for keeping pub businesses afloat. Furthermore, organisations such as the British Beer and Pub Association and UKHospitality have been making the political case for increased support.

Space – looking after teams

Staff and workforces have also faced struggle throughout this time. Many bartenders have found themselves out of work. The industry donated time and money to ensure that staff were supported both financially and emotionally.

Charities such as The Drinks Trust provided direct frontline support to thousands. From education and well-being seminars to the 24-hour advice helpline staffed by clinically trained psychotherapists they provided bartenders with practical help. They ran campaigns including the ‘virtual tip jar’ and the ‘Shaken not Broken’ initiative which has allowed individuals and organisations to continue to donate to out of work bar staff throughout the pandemic.

Space – looking after the public

By becoming COVID-19 secure during the periods in which licensed venues have been able to reopen the industry has taken every possible step to ensure that pubs became safe, and socially distanced environments.  They have been supported by member bodies and producers who stepped up to educate publicans on the guidelines.

Consumer behaviour

Reassuringly the evidence shows that the majority of drinkers continued to drink moderately and consumed the same or less alcohol as before the lockdown, with over a quarter reducing their intake. The sector is conscious of the small minority who drink at harmful levels and continued their support of charities helping people to assess their risk and seek professional support. This section explores these issues further.

Both Club Soda and Drinkaware launched supportive campaigns to offer help and guidance for the small minority who are concerned about their own drinking habits, or the habits of someone they know. These educational campaigns were tailored to specifically address lockdown-related concerns such as job loss and isolation.

With the pubs shut overall alcohol sales fell, despite an increase in retail purchases. The lockdowns also saw the acceleration and advancement of long-term alcohol trends with increased online sales. There has been nearly a third increase in the sales of low and no products and consumers buying less, but premium alcohol.

The work continues

The work demonstrated in this report shows the continued effectiveness of the self-regulatory model and the industry’s commitment to social responsibility. Despite the weight of enormous pressures, the sector has consistently stepped up to support its community, both internally and externally. The report emphasises the value of the industry, and the sector’s own need for recognition and support as the pandemic continues to pose massive challenges to the sector. While the pandemic continues, the work of the alcohol sector to support our communities will continue.

Read the full report here: