Behaviours and attitudes towards alcohol in Ireland in the context of COVID-19. Insights into the process of development and design for Barometer 2021.

Drinkaware Research Focus Blog

In May 2021, B&A undertook the latest in a series of national- population based surveys on adult drinking behaviours and attitudes towards alcohol in Ireland. Our Barometer series commenced pre-COVID in 2017 and allows for exploration of drinking practices over time and how they relate to other practices within daily life.

As we began to prepare for our 2021 survey, we envisaged that the data gathered would provide valuable insights into the impact of COVID-19 on the lives of adults in Ireland and help establish whether initial drinking habits reported in 2020 have been normalised in 2021. Monitoring and understanding alcohol consumption patterns and trends are crucial in understanding the impact of this ongoing public health crisis, following the initial ‘shock’ associated with the first lockdown phase.  

We worked together with B&A and held a series of planning meetings during spring 2021 to carefully consider a variety of measures and questions that would provide an analysis of the key determinants of the public’s behaviours and attitudes towards alcohol. We were also interested in the ‘wider picture’, which adults are experiencing in the ongoing pandemic, e.g. stress/ tension, mental health, economic impact, household dynamic, age, gender, region as well as the behaviour of other adults.  

As part of the development process, careful consideration was taken to keep questions in line with 2020 and additional relevant questions were added/revised to help examine COVID-19- One Year On. The ongoing pandemic has affected people’s lives in a variety of ways, both at individual (fears – of the unknown, of illness, of death, isolation, physical and financial insecurity), household (individual plus tension/stress) and societal level (economic recession, educational and opportunities limitations, job loss, rising inequities and stigma, infodemia, coronaphobia). Adults’ behaviours and attitudes towards alcohol are intertwined with these dimensions and to the core of our Barometer. The use of three internationally recognised question models was integral part of planning for our Barometer again in 2021 as detailed below.  

Data on consumption collected ‘on past 30 days’ in line with 2020 is important in telling us if there have been changes from the initial lockdown phase in 2020. It provides us with information on sustained behaviours and standouts for certain cohorts and whether peaks/standouts in certain cohorts have since taken place and/or intensified. However, we were very aware that ‘normal’ has taken on a new meaning in these difficult times so this year we also considered how we could ask participants to reflect on their drinking behavior since the onset of COVID-19. To what extent both the amount and frequency of alcohol consumed has changed both for them and for other members of their household? In examining those that report drinking more or less, we were also interested in collecting data on adults’ level of risk and/or harm in relation to their alcohol consumption patterns through the AUDIT-C and to what extent the frequency of propensity to increasing, or hazardous, drinking consumption cohorts have changed since 2020.  

The OECD acknowledges that ‘During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have significantly changed drinking habits, shifting places of consumption from bars and restaurants to home’. To reflect the unique context of the pandemic, we added additional questions to the 2021 Barometer to ascertain how new drinking occasions and spaces may have formed and developed. Such practices may now be sustained as a consequence of life in lockdown. We asked participants about their experiences of having takeaway drinks, outdoor drinking, online purchasing of alcohol and marking end of working day with a drink. Following Barometer 2020 and the identification of some worrying findings among parents, we were interested in learning more about potential changes to parents’ alcohol consumption within household contexts one year on. So we decided to ask about specific drinking occasions for parents such as drinking when children are asleep/in bed as well as the acceptability of drinking when children are present.  

Over one third of adults (36%) reported ‘drinking alone’ on a weekly+ basis in 2020 with peaks identified in certain cohorts. In planning for 2021, we were acutely aware that since COVID-19, ‘drinking alone’ has taken on a different meaning and may indeed be imposed rather than chosen for some due to restrictions. Some adults may also be drinking alone as a way of relieving loneliness and isolation. We wanted to try to understand more about solidary drinking occasions in the context of the ongoing pandemic and the reasons why certain adults are more likely to do so. We also acknowledge that there are  those that may report drinking alone but are not living alone. We included the Drinking Motivations Questionnaire: Revised Short Form (DMQ-R SF)  in our survey to enable responses to be analysed according to the different motivations. To reflect the unique ‘lockdown’ circumstances, the presented motivations were updated for the purposes of this study in 2020 and again in 2021, to ascertain the key drivers and reasons for adults’ drinking. This data would be specifically important in helping to further understand any pandemic-related changes in reasons for alcohol consumption. This would provide information on risk factors that may contribute to alcohol-related harm during the pandemic.  

Asking participants to complete the Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (SWEMWBS) again in 2021 would provide key data as to whether Irish adults’ mental wellbeing has worsened further from the spike in low mental wellbeing reported in 2020 (an almost pandemic in itself), or whether it has since stablised or improved for some and not others during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Peoples’ resilience is being tested the longer the pandemic is going on. What people were coping with back in April 2020 at the time of Barometer 2020 was an unprecedented crisis and set of stresses, worries and restrictions, albeit with an underlying assumption that this would pass. What we are being asked to cope with one year on is anything but normal. And so too in 2021 we decided to add additional questions to our Barometer on the availability of social networks, loss of routine as well as developing a new routine that would provide key information on some of the protective factors that may contribute to or inhibit such resilience despite prolonged and difficult life events.  

As well as connecting the dots on alcohol consumption one year into the pandemic, as part of our Barometer in 2021 we were interested in looking towards the future and adults’ behaviour post-COVID restrictions. We planned to ask participants what were they most looking forward to in terms of leisure activities following easing of restrictions as well as whether they were likely to continue to drink at home.  

The timing of the survey and data collection was crucial too, taking place in May 2021 and in line with easing of restrictions, emerging from a long, dark winter and sense of optimism and hope with the roll out of the vaccine programme. Understanding such behaviour changes during different phases of the pandemic is crucial to anticipating the sustainability of shifts. 
We look forward to having John O’Mahony, Director, B&A, present on the key findings at Summer 2021 Research Briefing on July 14th as part of his presentation entitled A year on – Drinking behaviours and attitudes in Ireland in the context of COVID-19 in 2021. Further details on the free event and how to register to attend are available here: