On the night of Sunday 15th March, Ellie* got very drunk. A week later, Boris Johnson would instruct the British public to avoid pubs and clubs, and to stop making non-essential journeys – the government’s first drastic move to control the spread of the coronavirus. Ellie had always hated Sundays but her feelings of dread on that evening were different from her usual end-of-the-weekend blues.
It had already started to feel risky to the 23-year-old to go to the pub, so she and a friend spent the evening in her tiny studio flat, listening to their favourite songs and dancing around her bedroom. That night, she drank two bottles of wine and tried to forget what she was seeing on social media about COVID-19. At around 7pm, they started taking vodka shots. Soon afterwards, her friend went home and Ellie went to her corner shop for snacks.
There’d always been a flirtation between Ellie and the man who worked in the 24-hour convenience store. But that night their brief chat as he stacked the shelves turned into a snog.
I feel like I rely on alcohol in a lot of my relationships – whether that's with friends or with men. I can't remember the last time I went on a date and didn't get hammered.
Even though she was drunk, Ellie immediately knew that kissing a relative stranger when people had already started preaching about social distancing was "stupid behaviour". "I cried on the phone to my friends for two hours afterwards," she tells me. "This was a week before lockdown."
Ellie has always been a relatively heavy social drinker. "I feel like I rely on alcohol in a lot of my relationships – whether that’s with friends or with men," she says. "I can't remember the last time I went on a date and didn’t get hammered."
At what point does heavy drinking become problem drinking? The coronavirus crisis is shining a light on this question which many of us would rather ignore.
Almost three weeks on, Ellie and her friends now socialise on video chat app Houseparty. She tells me that she’d never usually drink alone but that virtual meet-ups have changed the rules for her. "I’d never normally drink for no reason," she explains. "Drinking just because you’re video chatting to your mates and egging each other on – it just becomes silly."
As well as drinking while chatting to friends, Ellie’s started drinking at other times. "I had two quite strong gins the other day for no reason, and I’d never usually do that," she says. "Even if you’re on your own, you’re still talking to God knows how many people... It just feels very acceptable to be drunk at any given point."
During the lockdown, off-licences have been designated essential retailers and allowed to stay open. Meanwhile, it was reported last week that supermarket sales of alcohol are up 22% on the same time last year. Are we stockpiling? Self-medicating? Or a little from column A and a little from column B?
During the lockdown, off-licences have been designated essential retailers and allowed to stay open. Meanwhile, supermarket sales of alcohol are up 22% on the same time last year.
Richard de Visser, reader in psychology at the University of Sussex and the lead academic on the Dry January campaign, highlights that there is no existing data to help us predict what the current circumstances will do to people’s drinking habits. He thinks it’s unlikely that the lockdown will turn non-drinkers into drinkers but rather that "people who drink in certain ways, or for certain reasons, may find those emphasised or reduced."
He suggests that some people who only drink with others may find themselves drinking less, while those who already drink at home could end up doing "solitary drinking in isolation", especially if they already use booze as a "coping or filling-the-time mechanism".
"There's a risk of people maybe drinking more because that's what they do when they're by themselves and they're not feeling great about things," he explains.
Ruth*, 25, tells me she was already drinking more than she’d like to before the pandemic and would usually be "the last one at the bar". Since lockdown began, she says she’s been drinking a bit more, in part to ease the stress and boredom that come with being shut in with her parents and sister. "I’m quite a sociable person. I find it quite difficult not seeing friends," she tells me. "So if I’ve felt down at night, I’ve gone to watch a bit of TV and thought, I may as well have a couple of drinks."
When the punctuation points of a night at the pub are gone – waiting for a friend to finish their drink, queueing at the bar, watching someone pour a measure into your glass – it’s far easier to drink more without trying.
"If you're sitting there on the sofa or at the table, and there's a glass and there's a bottle, it's just really easy to keep topping it up – without those markers of how much you've had," says de Visser, adding that when drinking socially, we tend to notice how our pacing compares with those around us.
There's a risk of people maybe drinking more because that's what they do when they're by themselves and they're not feeling great about things.
Richard de Visser, University Of Sussex
For Tina*, 28, isolating with her partner when she previously lived alone has meant more – rather than fewer – opportunities to compare her drinking habits to someone else's. While her boyfriend isn’t a big drinker, Tina works in the alcohol industry and is used to being around people who enjoy a drink during the week. "It has made me drastically rethink my drinking habits," she tells me. "Of course, he's said he's not bothered if I have a glass of wine in the evening but I definitely feel as though we're not on the same wavelength with Houseparty socialising, drinking in Zoom chats etc."
How do you know if your drinking is actually a problem, especially if everyone you know is also drinking more than usual? "I think the first part of that might be people just asking themselves the question," de Visser tells me. "If you’re asking yourself, Is it too early for this? that’s the cue that it might be." He also suggests that it’s worth trying to stick to NHS guidelines to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, and that tracker apps can be a good way to keep an eye on how much you’ve actually had.
Ruth is hoping to cut down her booze intake as the weeks progress but recognises that habits around drinking at home can be hard to break. "I’m already getting lots of invitations from my friends for big nights out to celebrate once it’s all over so I don’t really know how it’ll go," she admits. "But I think if I try and cut down and get back into running and walking and feeling good, then I might be able to control it by the time we come out of lockdown."
For those who want to cut down, Marcus Munafo, professor of biological psychology at the University of Bristol, explains that something called 'choice architecture' can help us make healthier choices. This is the idea that changes to our environment can influence the way we behave. One change Professor Munafo suggests is using smaller glasses and buying half-bottles of wine.
If you have a large glass of wine, you're going to pour more into it. If you have a full bottle of wine, you might get halfway through it and think, Oh well, I may as well finish the thing off.
Marcus Munafo, University of bRISTOL
"If you have a large glass of wine, you're going to pour more into it. If you have a full bottle of wine, you might get halfway through it and think, Oh well, I may as well finish the thing off," he explains, adding that changes to what you buy can "create a little bit more friction when it comes to consuming more".
For Jess*, 26, drinking more frequently than usual has been about trying to impose some kind of structure to separate work time from leisure time. "Otherwise, you’re still on the sofa in the same room, aren’t you?" she says. "For me, it’s just about breaking up the day from daytime to evening time."
For people who want to cut down their intake, Professor Munafo suggests having some alcohol-free wines or beers in the fridge, to help recreate the sensation of ending the day with a drink. "A lot of the time, what people want is just the sensation of having a beer at the end of the day," he says. "There's almost a psychological effect of the relaxation of having the drink without the actual alcohol being present."
Jess doesn’t feel that having a couple of drinks every day is a problem for her at the moment but as there is a history of problem drinking in her family, she’s keen to go back to her normal pattern of drinking once or twice per week once lockdown is over.
"I imagine in the first couple of weeks, I won't be disciplined at all," she says. "But I like to think that after the first two weeks are up and life resumes normality and people are back at work and the routines are back there, it will be much easier."
*Names have been changed to protect interviewees' identities.
If you’re worried about your drinking, or about someone you know, you can talk to an advisor on DrinkAware’s live chat service Drinkchat. Alternatively, you can call Drinkline free on 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am–8pm, weekends 11am–4pm).
For ideas on how to stay #healthyathome visit the World Health Organisation to find out how to take positive steps to keep healthy, exercise and ultimately keep wellness top of your mind whilst stuck indoors.