Boozy Britain: how the nation drank in lockdown

A frightening new report shows more of us are hitting the bottle. Six writers share how lockdown changed their relationship with alcohol

A report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists found the number of people drinking at ‘high risk’ levels has doubled to almost 8.5million since February
A report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists found the number of people drinking at ‘high risk’ levels has doubled to almost 8.5million since February

From money worries and health anxiety, to juggling childcare and being separated from loved ones, there is much about the pandemic that has given us reason to drink.

So a new report that shows Britain has hit the bottle during lockdown and is now facing a ‘looming addiction crisis’ comes as little surprise.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists published a report this week that found the number of people drinking at ‘high risk’ levels has doubled to almost 8.5million since February. The report also found the number of people seeking help for opiate addiction has risen by 20 per cent.

“Covid-19 has shown just how stretched, under-resourced and ill-equipped addiction services are to treat the growing numbers of vulnerable people living with this complex illness [addiction],” says Professor Julia Sinclair, chair of the College’s Addiction Faculty, of its decision to call on the government to boost funding to addiction services.

The report also warns that heavy drinkers are more likely to develop serious complications if they catch coronavirus, and that the problem is growing fastest among middle class drinkers, with over 40pc now drinking too much.

“At a time when adopting a healthy lifestyle has never been more important, research clearly shows certain groups of people are displaying worrying drinking patterns,” says Elaine Hindal, CEO of charity Drinkaware, who recently published research that found parents and those on furlough are also drinking more since the start of lockdown.

“We’re concerned that, for a significant number of people, lockdown levels of drinking may become ingrained and hard to break,” adds Hindal. “Drinking more, whether out of boredom or anxiety, can lead to devastating health consequences, both mental and physical, as well as an increased tolerance for alcohol, which can lead to alcohol dependence.”

Here's how six people coped – or struggled – during the crisis...

 

Lockdown turned me into a full-blown alcoholic’

By James Stevens*

Before coronavirus, I hardly enjoyed a healthy relationship with alcohol. I partied in the bars and clubs of the City several times a week, keen to relieve the stresses from my job as a company director.

But lockdown pushed me over the edge, into a full-blown alcoholic.  In March, as other shoppers were filling their bags with dried pasta and loo roll, I stockpiled lager and gin. I knew that pubs would be shut for several months, and I wanted to make sure I could still get my kick. My shopping trolley full of booze didn’t raise a single eyebrow at the supermarket checkout - a sign, perhaps, of how many others were doing the same.

Working from home meant a round-the-clock open bar. As I sat in my bedroom, sending emails and joining video meetings with my colleagues, I knew in the back of my mind that just downstairs in the kitchen lay cupboards full of cans and bottles.

Work became immensely stressful as the economy took a nosedive, with the livelihoods of my employees weighing on my shoulders, and my bad habits began to seep ever-more into the working day. I drank myself to oblivion; some days, I polished off ten cans of lager plus several glasses of rum and coke. When I ran out, I simply ordered more on Deliveroo.

About a month ago, my wife convinced me that enough was enough. I joined a sobriety programme and ditched the booze altogether. As we move into what appears to be our next stage of lockdown, I hope profoundly that my fellow teetotalers manage to avoid the dark allure of the bottle.

*Name has been changed

 

‘No government will ever stop me drinking – ever’

By Cosmo Landesman

Cosmo Landesman abides by his Rule of One Credit: Rii Schroer

I know that some of my wilder bohemian friends hate the Government’s latest ‘Rule of Six’ because it stops them meeting up for pub crawls and getting p----- at parties. But no government nor their Covid rules and regulations will stop me from having a drink. Ever. I have always had my own Rule of One - one drink with one other person. And that’s perfect.

That one other person is – ideally – a very smart, sexy and funny woman who is so brilliant that in her company I’m transformed into a very smart, sexy and funny man. Go ahead and laugh. But reader, I married that woman. A couple of times. And we always had Martini cocktails together.

And that’s the drink I always have. I like it straight up with two olives. I love its cold, crisp purity.

What’s the point of not drinking? I no longer have any vices. I don’t do drugs. I don’t chase young women. That combination of a cold cocktail and good conversation is all the intoxication I need through these tough times and to remind us the good times will return.

 

‘I suspect I got Covid in a pub – now I can’t face going drinking again’

By Scott Dixon

Scott Dixon thinks he caught coronavirus in a pub - and he won't be returning to one  Credit: Stuart Nicol/©Stuart Nicol Photography

I should have known that going out on Friday 13th would spell trouble. It was in March, when I met a friend for pints after work in Edinburgh before restrictions came in: it was just a normal rammed bar on a Friday night.

I had a quiet weekend, then on the Monday I started to feel very odd. My wrists started to feel very hot and itchy, then about 48 hours later I had the worst headache of my life, hot and cold sweats, and was so exhausted I couldn’t get out of bed.

My GP told me to rest and take paracetamol, but it got so bad that I could no longer care for myself and I called 999. I was hospitalised in a Covid ward and was on oxygen for three nights, all the time thinking about how crowded that pub was.

I was in bed for weeks, and it has been a painfully slow recovery since then. I used to be very fit, and able to walk eight miles in one go without too much stress. This week I went for a walk of just a few miles, up a very slight incline, and it felt like I was wading through treacle the whole way.

I went back to a pub last Friday for the first time since I got ill. It was shocking: absolutely no social distancing, no track and trace, the bouncers didn’t have masks on.

There’s no way I will be going back to the pub again soon.

Scott Dixon is the author of Pandemic: My Story

 

‘I quit booze once the pandemic began’

By Poorna Bell

Poorna Bell has realised she's better off without alcohol

I had Covid in the first two weeks of lockdown, which expressed itself in breathlessness, extreme fatigue and a complete loss of taste and smell for two weeks. Given that I drink for pleasure, not being able to taste anything and feeling tired weren’t particularly conducive to cracking open a bottle of wine to accompany Zoom calls with friends and family. When I started to recover however, I noticed that I still wasn’t inclined to drink. Although friends would hold up their glasses with great gusto, and I’d see lots of Instagram stories of elaborate cocktails (alongside banana bread), it was as if a switch had been turned off.

While I drank frequently in my 20s and early 30s, I started cutting down in my late 30s – mainly because I noticed that regular drinking did not have a good impact on my mental health, and also because hangovers seemed like a colossal waste of time. But the most I’d ever been without a drink was two weeks – I had no idea it would last three months.

At the start, friends did say things like “oh, you’re being boring” because I had a tea instead of a G&T, but what I realised with delight was that people can’t peer pressure you via a screen, in the way they can do in real life. I didn’t feel tempted or as if I was missing out. More importantly, against a background of low level anxiety caused by the uncertainty of the pandemic, my brain felt relatively calm because I wasn’t plying it with alcohol. It taught me that if I don’t feel like a drink, I don’t have to have one.

Finally being able to see this connection has exposed an unavoidable truth: that honestly, I’m mostly better off without it.

 

‘I’m having a sober September after one too many’

By Gavin Newsham

Gavin Newsham has set himself a goal of staying sober for September 

We were housebound but happy. Yes, with the kids off school and work taking a backseat, those first few weeks of lockdown were like being on holiday; all lazy days and long lie-ins. Then there was the drinking. Most evenings we would open a bottle of wine, occasionally it might be two. Then, as the days dissolved into one, the corkscrew would emerge a little earlier each evening and, in no time at all, I found myself standing outside my house, staring shamefully at a recycling tub overflowing with empties. It was only when a neighbour, clearly suspicious that we had been flouting the social distancing rules, asked if I’d had a party that I realised that something needed to change.

It wasn’t as if I ever got blind drunk and I was never an awkward or angry drunk either, but it had become a habit; a trap that I had fallen into all too willingly. More importantly, what example was I setting for my three teenage children?

I had heard some adverts for ‘Go Sober for October’ and thought I’d start my own ‘Don’t Get Sozzled in September’ instead. I have to admit I do feel good, probably because I’m sleeping so much better. I’m more focused, energetic and productive but, according to my friends, I’m also a crashing bore. Going to the pub is pointless now, while evenings at friends’ houses, which used to be all about drinking and general daftness, just don’t appeal, not when it means mineral water rather than Malbec.

What will happen when September ends? The beginning of a brave new dawn, perhaps. But mostly I’m just counting down the days till when I can have a drink again.

 

‘Lockdown left addicts like me without a recovery network’

By Ella Cory-Wright

March 23, when Britain went into lockdown, was a more significant date to me than most: the second anniversary of my sobriety. Even two years into recovery, thoughts of using creep up on me – and in lockdown, their frequency intensified. Overnight, the carefully structured routine I relied upon to keep myself well evaporated: my work schedule up-ended, my recovery meetings cancelled. Anxiety and boredom – both of which the coronavirus crisis has provided in spades – are major triggers.

Everyone’s recovery is different, but without groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, I wouldn’t be clean today. With in-person meetings shuttered, millions of addicts were left without their recovery network, and I wasn’t alone when I started to panic: one week in early lockdown, calls to the helpline I volunteer for tripled in one shift – all of them from those worried about relapsing in the face of self-isolation.

But that’s only a part of the story. Huge swathes of support groups migrated online, and the speed with which the community has adapted is astonishing. Of course, there’s nothing like the real thing but, logging into a screen full of slightly blurry faces, you swell with a sense of dogged solidarity. It feels curiously triumphant.

 

The seven habits that indicate you could be drinking too much

By Elaine Hindal, CEO of Drinkaware

  1. Pouring yourself a glass of wine or wine earlier in the day than you usually would, pre-lockdown
  2. Finding it hard to stop at just one or two drinks
  3. Drinking out of boredom or loneliness
  4. Experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression, and drinking to cope
  5. Feeling the need to drink more each time to get the same feeling
  6. Finding the quality of your sleep, mood and productivity has declined
  7. Experiencing physical symptoms like sweating, shaking, nausea that could be symptoms of alcohol withdrawal

How to cut down on your drinking

  • Stick to drinking within the low-risk guidelines, which say it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis, and to spread your units over the week. Fourteen units is roughly six pints of 4% lager or six medium (175ml) glasses of 13.5% wine.
  • Have at least three drink-free days each week and replace drinking with an activity.
  • Experiment with alcohol-free drinks – there is an increasing variety on offer from retailers.
  • Use smaller glass sizes for your drinks and use a bottle stop to save wine for another day.
  • Try the Drinkaware online self-assessment that can help identify whether you should be concerned about how much you drink.

For confidential advice, visit Drinkaware.co.uk or call 0300 123 1110 where you can talk to a professional via chat online or over the phone. Or find a list of support services either online or local to you.