Lockdown study shows home drinking is a major contributor to alcohol-related violence

New research isolates impact of alcohol sold in shops and supermarkets on violence, including domestic violence.

The proportion of violent incidents in England relating to alcohol did not fall as much as expected when pubs, bars, and restaurants were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

A new study by the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) and University of Liverpool has found that there was only a 2.7 percentage point reduction in the proportion of violence that was alcohol-related while on-trade alcohol outlets were closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Violent incidents cover a range of offences, such as murder, grievous bodily harm, and stalking and harassment, and the drop in these was far less than expected. Further to this, there was also no fall identified in the proportion of domestic violence which was alcohol-related when the on-trade was closed.

“While alcohol-related violence fell when many bars and pubs closed during lockdown,” said study author Dr Carly Lightowlers, “alcohol sold in off-trade sites like supermarkets and off-licences remained a crucial driver of violent incidents – including domestic violence – as the proportion of violence which was alcohol-related remained close to pre-pandemic levels.”

The availability of alcohol has a strong link with rates of violence: as sites and opportunities to purchase alcohol increase, so do levels of violence. The clearest evidence relates to on-trade sites like pubs, bars, and restaurants. Whilst there is also evidence that increased availability of alcohol in the off-trade – supermarkets and off-licences – also increases violence, up until now, it has been difficult to disentangle the two. This is because people may consume alcohol from the off-trade before visiting the on-trade, or because purchases made from supermarkets might contribute to violent incidents which happen far from the original purchase location.

When the on-trade was forced to close during lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions, it gave the chance to isolate the impact of off-trade alcohol on violence. The researchers used police-recorded data to look at how monthly alcohol-related violence figures changed – specifically the proportion of violence overall which was alcohol-related – when on-trade outlets were open, compared to periods when they were closed.

“These findings suggest that off-trade alcohol availability needs to be taken far more seriously when developing and implementing policies to reduce alcohol-related violence”, said co-author Lucy Bryant.

Violence reduction interventions often focus far more on violence in the night-time economy (e.g., policing operations), in part because this kind of violence is more visible to the police, public, and policymakers. However, this overlooks a great deal of alcohol-related violence that occurs in other sites, including the home. It also overlooks certain effective violence reduction measures policymakers might engage in which reduce alcohol availability – for example, through the licensing of off-trade sites. Currently, local residents and responsible authorities cannot object to new off-trade sites being licensed in their neighbourhoods based on concerns that there are already many outlets nearby. Reform of the licensing system to this effect would likely reduce violence rates.

In their call to policymakers, the researchers argue for a distinct focus on off-licensed premises and their contribution to violence – particularly domestic violence. Report author, Lucy Bryant, said: “There is an unequal burden of alcohol-related violence experienced by people from more deprived backgrounds, and we know that alcohol outlets cluster in more deprived neighbourhoods. More effective policies to reduce off-trade availability would tackle this type of violence, and therefore also increase health equality.”