Sitting on my sofa watching television, with the children in bed and my husband away for work, it wasn’t the uninterrupted screen time I enjoyed most but the glass of sauvignon in my hand – and the fact I was able to sip it alone. I’ve always seen drinking as a solitary pleasure. Moving out of London three years ago, away from bars within walking distance and public transport, only made boozing at home on my own all the more appealing.
Why worry about making small talk with strangers, when a bottle of wine was chilling in my fridge at a fraction of the cost and with no fear of making a fool of myself when inebriated? Why bother putting on smart clothes, booking a taxi and waiting in a queue for a pricey cocktail when I could down an infinitely superior daiquiri at home?
My reclusive drinking habits might have raised eyebrows prior to 2020, but the pandemic has made them mainstream. Suddenly, lockdowns meant everyone had to switch from bar service to fridge-foraging, drinking the beers they would once have shared with friends and colleagues with spouses, screens or just themselves for company.
Data released today from the Government’s Office for Health Improvement and Disparities found 18 per cent of adults in England – almost eight million people – were drinking at levels of “increasing or higher risk” in the three months to the end of October 2021; an extra two million people compared to February 2020, the month before lockdown.
Prof Julia Sinclair, chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, blamed the increase on the switch to drinking at home, which led to higher consumption and longer drinking sessions.
She’s right – nothing spells “drinking binge” quicker than a comfy armchair, fully-stacked wine rack and absence of judgment. Throw in the compulsion to anaesthetise ourselves from the horrors of Covid and I’m not surprised so many have joined me in drinking at home.
“The first lockdown saw a marked increase in alcohol purchased from supermarkets. We were using alcohol to cope – it numbs feelings, and we were anxious,” explains psychologist Dr Marianne Trent. “When pubs became unavailable the social shame and stigma of drinking at home became less apparent. We didn’t have to commute. The factors keeping us from drinking excessively at home were no longer there.”
But even though society has opened back up, the habit of drinking to excess has become entrenched, as reflected by Miranda’s storyline in And Just Like That... Unhappy in her marriage, she starts drinking before midday, admitting that what started as a Covid coping mechanism carried over: “We all were in the pandemic, and... I guess I just kept going.”
Whereas socialising and drinking went hand-in-hand – and one rarely happened without the other – for many, the connection has been severed for good.
Instead of drinking five or six pints once a week at his local pub with friends, Lee Attrill found himself buying beer from his local shop during lockdowns “most evenings”, in a bid to break up the boredom of weeknights alone. “It became a habit,” says Lee, 33, a university maintenance team leader from Southampton. “I’d get a four-pack and because they were there I’d end up drinking them [all].”
Even though pubs have reopened, and he feels a bit “podgy” and “groggy” as a result of his daily home drinking, he’s in no hurry to revert to previous drinking habits. “It’s partly because of Covid but also, I’ve got used to it,” he says. “I find myself not wanting to socialise as much. I don’t want to book [somewhere to drink] a couple of weeks ahead. Or wear a mask when I’ve worn one all day.”
Like many, Lucy Gordon started drinking at home mid-week to break up the monotony of lockdowns. “Every single day we’d have a glass of wine, or several, depending on how bad the day had been,” says the 33-year-old, who quit her job working for a property firm and launched a marketplace and wholesale alcohol company, From Our Cellar, during the pandemic.
She and her partner George, also 33, accompany their drinks with canapes: “Because you’re not travelling, you’re home at 5.30pm. Because you’re not paying pub money, you can get a nicer gin and nicer wine.”
Pre-pandemic, Lucy and George frequented their local pub in Chiswick “at least once a week”. Now, she says: “We hardly ever go.” She’s not drinking more as a result – she enjoys two drinks a night, rather than several once a week – but forgoes social interaction as a result.
And that, experts fear, is the underlying problem now many of us are no longer drinking in groups.
After all, the use of alcohol as a societal bond spans millennia. Brewing has been traced to the Middle East 10,000 years ago, while wine production began 8,000 years ago. “The Romans used to drink a lot. Alcohol has been a big part of western cultures for hundreds of years,” says psychologist and hypnotherapist Aaron Surtees, founder of subconsciously.com.
In 2017, research from Oxford University found moderate alcohol consumption could be linked to better wellbeing because of the social interaction we get from drinking with friends in a pub. Those without a local pub were found to have smaller social networks and lower engagement with their community. “There will always be an enhancement, socially, for most,” agrees Surtees.
And for introverts such as myself, diminishing social skills are not the only downside. Without anyone to monitor my intake, my consumption has increased – not necessarily in terms of the amount I drink per evening, but the amount of evenings I drink.
What was once a Friday or Saturday night habit segued into Thursday and Sunday. By last month, I was drinking every day of the week – a situation Vicky, 46, can relate to.
Having hardly drunk at all prior to the pandemic, she now gets through a bottle of wine a night. “In the pub I’d just buy the odd glass of wine because I was busy talking to people,” says Vicky – who doesn’t want to give her surname – adding that, in any case, “when you’re paying £8 a glass you’re a bit more mindful”.
She started ordering home deliveries of alcohol from local companies to support them during lockdown. “Before, I saw alcohol as something I drank when I went out. I never added it to the weekly shop,” says Vicky, married to Chris, 46, with whom she runs a hospitality company in Stevenage. She adds, however: “With the loss of social life it felt normal to buy in. Before I knew it I was drinking more.”
By the end of last year, she says: “I realised I can drink a bottle of wine like water over the space of an evening. I don’t even get drunk. It’s shocking.”
Alcohol initially alleviated her anxiety during the pandemic. Now, she believes, it exacerbates it and she’s keen to cut down. “I want to be able to enjoy a glass of wine when I go out for dinner, but appreciate alcohol for what it is, rather than something I don’t have a stop button for.”
Perhaps we could all benefit from not only cutting our consumption, but moving the alcoholic units we do consume outside the confines of our home. As Dr Trent puts it: “I wouldn’t ever say it’s the alcohol that’s beneficial, but that human connection – getting together in a pub situation – can be really useful.”