During the pandemic our personal, professional and social environments have altered. The way we interact and talk to each other has changed to become largely virtual, many of us have had to adapt to different working and living arrangements, and as a result it has affected how we drink.
A 2019 survey by the NHS found that 82% of the English population reported consuming some form of alcohol across an average year, with 49% drinking at least once a week (NHS, 2019). Whilst excessive drinking is known to cause damage to our physical health, previous research has shown that consumed moderately it can have many social benefits. A study cited by the University of Oxford showed that our social networks provide us with an important buffer against mental illness and alcohol can trigger the endorphin system, which promotes bonding (Dunbar, Launay, Wlodarski, et al, 2016).
The same study also found that frequenting a regular venue can directly affect the size of our social networks, which in turn can affect how satisfied we feel in life. In a previous post I wrote about recognising the impact of loneliness and how community capacity can be an important factor in preventing it. In addition, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has previously conducted research into the benefits a pub can play in reducing and preventing social isolation. Having a ‘local’ offers the chance to socialise and build relationships that might not be readily available at home and can offer individuals the chance to strengthen their communities by talking to neighbours and making new friends.
They are often valued so highly that they can be listed as Assets of Community Value (ACV) to preserve them from future development and keep communities alive. This is even more so in rural areas where the local hostelry is often at the heart of the community and serves as one of the few places that people can gather to socialise. Conversing with familiar faces enables people to feel engaged in their locality, reduces loneliness and in turn boosts their self-esteem (Dunbar, Launay, Wlodarski. et al, 2016).
However, in what has become an unprecedented year, on Friday 20 March 2020 Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered all café’s, pubs and restaurants to close as soon as they reasonably could. When the announcement was made it was for an indefinite period of time and formed part of wider lockdown measures to protect the country during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. At the same time, major social events including sport and music festivals were postponed, leaving many people’s immediate plans looking vastly different. The move to close pubs in particular was unprecedented, hostelries having remained open during both world wars and even the Spanish flu of 1919.
It would be four months before they would be permitted to re-open, and even when they did social distancing measures would remain in place, sporting events would be played behind closed doors and music festivals would largely become virtual.
During the initial phase of lockdown in March and April, there were numerous reports of people drinking more. Now confined to their homes and with time on their hands, many people reacted by stocking up on beer and wine. Despite most industries being forced to close or move online, off-licenses were deemed ‘essential’ and were permitted to stay open throughout, as a result they reported a 22% increase in sales during the first month alone – totalling a staggering £1.1bn. For some however, this sudden change in behaviour brought with it a number of risks.
With normal routines suddenly out the window and many people feeling anxious about the unprecedented situation, the rise in alcohol sales was not surprising. Alongside the endorphins it provides for social occasions, alcohol also slows down the brain’s natural responses, providing quick relief from the concerns and stresses people experience in everyday life.
During coronavirus – job insecurity, troubled relationships, family tension, sudden loneliness or the experience of bereavement are just some of the factors that could have triggered people to turn to it.
For example, if a person suddenly became unemployed or furloughed, fearing debt and missing colleagues as a result, they may have used alcohol as an affordable way of dealing with their concerns. Left unresolved it could quickly turn into habitual drinking which could lead to substance abuse or even alcoholism.
Unfortunately, like many addictive activities that also include drug use and gambling, alcohol consumption can become a pattern. It is strongly linked to mental health concerns and depression, quickly leading to a vicious cycle – drink because you’re depressed, depressed because you drink. Concerns involving it are experienced across social care, alcohol misuse having been cited as one of the most prevalent parental characteristics in Serious Case Reviews and care proceedings (Taylor, 2013). In adult social care it is also linked to self-neglect, hoarding and more frequently, homelessness.
When it was announced that pubs would be permitted to re-open, some rushed back, whilst others were more cautious. Like everything, we all have a different opinion and all of us react to things in different ways, which is why identifying when you are potentially drinking too much can be hard to pinpoint. A recent study conducted by the Royal College of Psychologists has highlighted that problem drinking has increased in recent months, mainly owing to the factors discussed.
A previous Research in Practice blog by Imogen Blood provided some helpful tips for approaching the situation if alcohol consumption is a problem. Although the landscape has shifted rapidly, her suggestions included looking after the family, staying curious about the situation and accepting that change is non-linear.
Whilst of course there are wider issues at play than just alcohol, it will continue to play a big part in our social relationships and the way we interact with each other. We should look to encourage opportunities for promoting social wellbeing and to re-build our community spirit. After all, keeping connected has never been more important.