Ian Hamilton: Is alcohol really “essential” during covid-19?

With the UK seeing a surge in alcohol sales over the past few weeks, now would be a good time to emphasise public health advice on alcohol, argues Ian Hamilton

The word “essential” keeps cropping up during the covid-19 crisis: for weeks we have been advised to avoid non-essential social contact and to only travel when it is essential. Another, rather surprising, use of “essential” recently appeared on the UK government’s list of businesses that are allowed to remain open. Ensuring our access to alcohol isn’t disrupted during the covid-19 crisis, the government has added off-licences to the list of “essential retailers,” joining pharmacies and high street banks. 

Off-licences aren’t of course the only suppliers of the nation’s favourite drug—we have the option of supermarkets, corner shops, newsagents, and even petrol stations. The latter is a small reminder of the odd approach to alcohol policy in the UK, where drink driving is against the law, but purchasing the intoxicant while filling your car up with fuel is permitted.

A glimpse into how much we are drinking during this crisis is provided by the surge in alcohol sales recorded at the end of March, with sales rising by around 25% compared with the same period in the previous year. This could simply indicate that we are stocking up rather than consuming more alcohol, but having extra alcohol stored at home when most of us are housebound may not be the best way of moderating our intake. We already know that we can be inclined to pour larger portions of alcohol when at home compared with the pre-determined measures provided in pubs and restaurants. 

Every aspect of life has changed due to the virus, leaving many people feeling anxious, isolated, uncertain, and depressed—not to mention the pandemic’s impact on people’s finances. All of which can lead to situations where people attempt to self-medicate with alcohol. Unfortunately, alcohol can amplify those original problems rather than provide temporary relief.

Now would be a good time to emphasise public health advice on alcohol, such as limiting our intake to 14 units a week and observing two dry days a week. We are prone to be less than honest with ourselves or others about how much we really drink. As alcohol compromises immunity, this is perhaps a good time to be reflective and honest about how much we are consuming and why. Individually and collectively, our health has to be optimised. So, while we are encouraged to exercise and eat well, why are we not hearing much about moderating our drinking ?

Ensuring we all heed this advice could help to reduce pressure on the NHS—there were 358 000 alcohol-related hospital admissions in 2018/19. At a time when considerable work is being put into freeing up capacity in hospitals, reducing accidents due to alcohol or poisoning due to overconsumption could contribute to this effort.

Government ministers regularly reassure us in their daily press briefings that no stone will be left unturned in the struggle to overcome this crisis. So far, the only mention of alcohol has been the announcement that off-licences will be kept open as they are formally deemed to be essential. This lack of advice could be a mere oversight, although it perhaps signals the close relationship and influence that the industry has on politics. This is an industry that has proven to be effective in lobbying for taxation and wider policies that work in their favour. The price of alcohol relative to income is low and the industry has fought tooth and nail to resist any attempt to introduce minimum unit pricing—a sure sign that this policy would reduce consumption.

Temporary bans on the sale of alcohol have been introduced in some countries. These could prove to be counterproductive, but there is a role for clearer messaging from the government about alcohol during this crisis. So, while it’s useful for us all to explore our relationship with alcohol, it’s “essential” that politicians change the relationship they have with this industry. Admitting there is a problem is not only where individual change begins, it’s a vital first step in rehabilitating an unhealthy political relationship.

Ian Hamilton is an academic at the University of York with an interest in addiction and mental health. He previously worked as a mental health nurse with people who had combined mental health and substance use problems. Twitter: @ian_hamilton_

Competing interests: I am affiliated with Alcohol Research UK.