Britain’s drinking culture has long been an accepted part of our cultural celebrations, from buying your first pint on your 18th birthday, to binge drinking through your first week of university.
And the great British pub is still seen as the stalwart of our communities, with approximately 47,600 in operation. Drinking is about as close to a definable British culture as you can get.
Our sober spaces are being quietly and methodically exterminated.
I’m by no means the first to question our national alcohol dependence. Many have examined Britain’s relationship with alcohol. But the coronavirus pandemic has thrown our bad habits into sharp relief. More than a quarter of people admitted to drinking more during the first lockdown in spring of this year.
What’s more, as access to vital public services closed across the UK – including in-person mental health support – pubs remained open. As rules came in that dictated weddings with more than 30 guests could no longer go ahead, you could still technically gather in any one of our drinking establishments. As pregnant women had to attend maternity appointments alone, and, in some places, go through the first stages of labour without a birth partner, pubs were still seen as a priority.
With the introduction of the second lockdown on 5 November, the government finally ceded and closed the pubs. But that it took so long for this decision to be taken speaks to the fear of a powerful public backlash. This fear seems warranted given the number of people who, anecdotally, decried the closures, emphasising there are many for whom a pub is their sole form of social interaction. While we must empathise with those facing isolation, we must also consider the wider implications that for many in the UK pubs are a main or only source of community.
A look at the 2020 NHS national alcohol report shows that in 2018-2019 there were 358,000 admissions to hospital where the main issue involved alcohol, and in 2018 alone there were 5,698 alcohol-specific deaths.
With numbers this high, the lack of sober spaces in the UK for people of all ages, as well as our culture’s penchant for boozy nights out should be considered a matter of public health. We should also consider those who make the brave decision to pursue recovery from alcohol addiction, and how terrifying it must be to find your local communal spaces a difficult place to be, if not entirely off-limits.
The potential for alcohol abuse is not the only worrying feature of our pub-centred social lives either. In recent years, loneliness in the UK has become such a grave issue that it has been named an epidemic. Nearly half of us in England feel lonely “occasionally, sometimes or often”, according to figures that one can imagine must have worsened with the enforced the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic.
With researchers finding that loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, providing spaces where it’s easy to foster connections is vital, but do pubs promote the inclusion needed to fulfil a task of this size?
The short answer is no. Besides those to whom pubs are already a complicated space because of their decision to remain sober, pubs also prove to be problematic for those of a certain age and gender.
Along with the natural exclusion of those below the age of 18, a recent study shows that one in five women report feeling left out in pubs because of their gender, with a third of women stating that they feel pub environments are male-orientated. With the number of youth centres continuing to dwindle and safe spaces for women becoming increasingly important, these factors are a cause for concern.
Another group that is too often overlooked in community planning is disabled people. Disability charity Euan’s Guide found that 36% of disabled people feel pubs and bars have typically poor or very poor accessibility, making the centralisation of pubs in the UK even more exclusionary.
This lockdown, before we go back to “normal”, it’s vital that we reflect on the impact of so much of our culture being built around alcohol. With such high rates of alcohol-related illness and reported loneliness, it is a huge disservice to many people and puts public health at risk.
If this government takes social wellbeing seriously, it needs to begin committing money and time to creating spaces that ensure the inclusion of a wider range of people, and help foster connection without encouraging potentially harmful behaviours.
Jodie Hare is a freelance writer.