Public Health Scotland has published findings from two studies commissioned to investigate the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on alcohol consumption in Scotland during its first few months. Taken together, the two studies suggest that, at a population level, people were drinking at reduced levels in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when restrictions included the closure of licensed alcohol premises, compared with the same months in previous years.
One study used weekly alcohol sales data to estimate the effect on population-level alcohol consumption in Scotland, and in England & Wales. The data include both sales through the off-trade (supermarkets and off-licences) and the on-trade (pubs, clubs and restaurants) during the period from January 2017 to July 2020.
It found that the pandemic and related restrictions were associated with a 6 per cent reduction in the total volume of pure alcohol sold per adult in Scotland and in England & Wales. Despite the overall reduction in alcohol sales in this period, the weekly averages of 17.5 units in Scotland and 16.7 in England & Wales remained in excess of the UK Chief Medical Officers' guideline of 14 units per week.
The greatest reduction in per adult sales was found for beer, with a 23 per cent reduction in Scotland and 19 per cent reduction in England & Wales. Total sales of wine increased by 4 per cent in Scotland compared with 8 per cent in England & Wales, whereas total sales of spirits remained unchanged.
The second study used self-reported data to assess changes in the average number of drinking days and the number of alcohol units drank per week. All measures of self-reported off-trade consumption in both Scotland and England increased during the initial period of the COVID-19 restrictions.
Commenting on the findings, Lindsay Paterson, Interim Director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), said: “Although any reduction in total alcohol sales is to be welcomed, consumption remains at dangerously high levels with concerning behaviour trends. It also needs to be emphasised that these figures relate only to the first lockdown last spring. There are some indications that drinking levels increased again during the second half of 2020. There is an ongoing need to improve alcohol treatment and recovery services, which have faced challenges due to COVID-19 restrictions.”