Adults in the UK have increased their alcohol consumption during the lockdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the lockdown in England alone, the consumption of alcohol at home reached such epic proportions that alcohol related disease and resultant deaths rose by 20% from 2019 to 2020.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, a large percentage of people were overcome by the fear of the pandemic, the anxiety caused by isolation, and the exacerbation of mental health conditions. Living during such uncertain times, it is not hard to imagine why symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress have increased among adults of all ages.
Are More People Really Drinking More During the Pandemic?
When the lockdowns were first implemented in March 2020 in the UK, restaurants, pubs, and clubs were permitted to close their doors while licensed retailers of alcohol remained open. During this time, the sales of alcohol sharply increased which led to a rise in the number of people drinking at home and in isolation. Research has concluded that the lockdown has had a negative influence on drinking behaviours.
To ascertain whether drinking habits changed in response to the lockdowns and pandemic, surveys conducted among a UK sample of drinkers revealed a significant difference in individual drinking behaviours as a result of COVID-19. Both young and older adult populations that had been drinking prior to the lockdown had either reduced or increased their alcohol consumption during and after the lockdowns in the UK. The reports indicated that 1 in 5 adults have increased the amount of alcohol consumed during the lockdown. An average 15% of regular drinkers have increased their alcohol intake, drinking more during the day and becoming heavy drinkers.
Why Has Alcohol Use Become a Concern During the Pandemic?
The reason that individuals, recovery services, and the government should be concerned about the rate of drinking is because of the risk of developing dependence and addiction.
Harmful drinking is associated with higher levels of risky behaviour, domestic violence, and problems with the law. The increase in alcohol related criminalisation, hospitalisations, and deaths have also placed a burden on government systems and services. Public Health England has recognised the need for firmer restrictions and policies as alcohol related incidents and services cost the UK around £27 billion annually (The BMJ Opinion).
The costs associated with alcohol harm also affect businesses owing to higher rates of employee absenteeism from work. The reasons for absenteeism range from hangovers to emergency hospital visits. Underfunded alcohol recovery services also make fewer resources available to those who want to make a change.
If heavier drinking and alcohol addiction are caused by the pandemic, it means additional strain on already burdened government services trying to cope with cases of COVID-19.
What does this mean for those who are already battling alcohol abuse and addiction? It could mean fewer opportunities to find recovery services and helpful resources.
It also means more difficulties experienced by families where alcohol abuse and addiction are rife. To understand the consequences of alcohol addiction, one simply needs to look at the effects of alcohol on mental health. The heavy and frequent consumption of alcohol can make feelings of stress and tension worse. It compromises our ability to cope and maintain healthy relationships with our loved ones.
The Impact of Heavy Drinking Beyond the Individual
During the lockdowns, there was an increase in the number of reports of household tension where alcohol was frequently used. For every 1 in 7 families, tension and stress were the highest where heavy alcohol consumption was present. Reports further showed that households with children suffered tension and higher risk of domestic violence where large amounts of alcohol were consumed. This was made worse during the lockdown.
If alcohol abuse and addiction continue to rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, this means that more families including children will be placed at risk of difficult if not violent living conditions.
What the Research Says About Drinking During the Pandemic
Reports have shown that infrequent drinkers tended to lessen or quit their consumption of alcohol with the lockdown; however, frequent drinkers increased their alcohol intake for the same period.
Apart from the changes in drinking behaviours owing to COVID, there has also been greater interest in people seeking help to curb the frequency and the nature of their drinking habits.
Individuals who were concerned about their drinking activities were found to reach out to counselling and support groups in 2021. This included searches for helpful information and resources to manage alcohol use and addiction online.
Public Health England further issued a report on alcoholism resulting from the pandemic and lockdowns in the UK. They found a rise of 15% in alcohol poisoning, and over a 20% increase in deaths owing to alcohol liver disease. Prior to the pandemic, hospitals were already inundated with admissions for alcohol related injuries and disease. Sadly, COVID-19 is associated with a significant increase in these numbers particularly among heavy drinkers.
And according to leading addiction expert, Paul Spanjar of the Providence Projects – a private and NHS funded addiction treatment facility – these numbers are only scratching the surface on what is yet to come. “We are yet to see the full impact of lockdowns on addiction rates, in many cases individuals will not seek treatment for many months or years. Denial is common in those suffering with alcohol dependence, and often alcoholics do not seek treatment and continue to damage their health despite negative consequences. With NHS services already under pressure following lockdowns, this trend in my view, is likely to continue upwards”.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have contributed to higher levels of heavy drinking, risky behaviours, and alcohol-related diseases.
Because alcohol is such a driving force behind many stresses, tensions, high risk behaviours, and diseases, it is important that intervention and support are provided for both individuals and their families. Successful intervention can reduce the rate at which addiction worsens. The problem is that the government has focused on cutting back its funding for recovery and rehabilitation programs. This means that fewer resources will be made available for alcohol and drug addiction. This could be a major challenge as future waves of COVID-19 and the possibility of additional lockdowns looms over communities.
If steps are not taken to address the hidden pandemic of addiction, it will simply lead to higher rates of dependence, stress on medical services, and poor mental health among individuals and families.