In March 2020, the UK Government’s response to the rising threat of the COVID-19 pandemic included the closure of all pubs, bars, and restaurants. Meanwhile, shops that sell alcohol, such as supermarkets and off-licences, were designated ‘essential services’ and remained open.
Over the course of the year and into 2021, there were multiple changes to licensing – the regulations that govern how, when and where alcohol can be sold – reflecting shifting lockdown restrictions as the pandemic unfolded. This extraordinary scenario raised debates in the media about the risks around licensed premises such as pubs and restaurants in the context of COVID-19, and how they should be managed.
Alcohol in the media
Research has explored how alcohol and drinking behaviours are represented in the media, and how these representations may shape social norms around alcohol and policy responses, such as the minimum unit price for alcohol in Scotland. The media are a site where often conflicting perspectives on alcohol are played out, and evidence around alcohol harms is communicated and disputed. The UK media coverage of the pandemic in 2020 included reporting on the changes to alcohol licensing. Examining this reporting can add to our understanding of the media’s role in communicating risks and responsibilities relating to alcohol in the UK.
Analysing media reports of licensing changes
To explore this issue, I examined over 250 newsprint articles reporting on alcohol licensing changes in England during six key periods between March and December 2020. These changes included the initial closure of pubs, bars and restaurants; the shifting permissions around take-away alcohol sales; the (partial) re-opening of premises in July; and the multiple regional and ‘tiered’ restrictions placed on licensed premises across the year. These key policy changes are shown in the figure below.
Figure 1 Six periods of key changes to licensing policy in England in 2020
Through the analysis, I looked at how risks were portrayed in newsprint reporting on licensing changes, and I identified a notable shift across the year in these representations of risk.
In the first few months from March 2020, many articles depicted (perhaps unsurprisingly) licensed premises such as pubs and bars as risky spaces, deemed a “threat to public health” due to the increased chance of transmission of COVID-19.
Some articles, particularly in local newspapers, also portrayed ‘irresponsible’ licensees, reporting on landlords as causing “a flagrant public nuisance” by breaching restrictions to serving alcohol illicitly during lockdown.
As pubs tried to find new ways to sell alcohol through take-away and online, articles reported other issues arising, such as increased litter from take-away sales.
Threat of social disorder
In the run-up to the relaxation of some restrictions on licensed premises, on what was dubbed by newspapers as ‘super Saturday’ in early July 2020, there was more emphasis on the ‘threat’ of social disorder, arising from individual drinkers. Many papers, particularly tabloid newspapers, predicted chaotic scenes as the public would finally be able to visit pubs and restaurants, with the Daily Mail anticipating “pub-ageddon” as a result. The reporting following this landmark day described some examples of disorder, such as drinkers “ignoring social distancing” (Mirror, 5th July 2020) and instances of antisocial behaviour.
However, articles also started to show more critique of the Government’s decision to open up licensed premises. The critiques implied that social disorder from opening up licensed premises was ‘inevitable’, due to British drinkers lacking self-control in the pub, and that this should have been anticipated by the Government.
These kinds of critiques increased in prominence in the second half of 2020, with articles focusing less on individual drinkers and premises and more on the Government’s policies that affected licensed premises.
A sense of confusion and uncertainty about policy decisions was common, such as in articles describing Government ‘u-turns’ on decisions, such as whether pubs could sell take-away alcohol during the November lockdown. There was also a tone of ridicule of Government policymaking in some articles. An example of this was in the reporting of the debates around whether a Cornish pasty counted as a “substantial meal” in a pub, amid “baffling” restrictions on licensed premises introduced in high-risk areas from September.
Voices of alcohol and hospitality industry representatives were more present in these kinds of articles, and often challenged the effectiveness of the Government’s licensing policies for reducing COVID-19 transmission. Representatives were quoted as saying that the continuing restrictions on licensed premises were not “evidence-based” and might, in fact, cause more problems, for example the 10pm curfew “encourag[ing] people to binge drink”.
As the year progressed, articles also increasingly portrayed licensed premises as ‘victimised’. Arguments were presented that hospitality businesses were unfairly targeted by Government restrictions compared with other types of business, such as supermarkets, which were portrayed as less safe and less ‘regulated’ in terms of managing COVID-19 transmission. Ahead of restrictions over the Christmas period, the threat of “total decimation” of the hospitality and brewing industries was a common feature of newsprint articles.
Newsprint reporting of COVID-19 restrictions in England affecting pubs, bars and other licenced premises during the first half of 2020 highlights a familiar theme in how alcohol consumption has been represented in British media. The focus on risky places, irresponsible drinkers and resultant social disorder is reminiscent of media narratives of “Binge-drinking Britain” of the 2000s. Emphasis on social problems also reflects concerns in public health circles about the limitations of the licensing system in England, which is considered useful for minimising alcohol-related crime and social issues, but not for protecting health.
Focus in later articles on the frustrations of alcohol and hospitality industries with Government decisions affecting licensed premises highlights some potential for change, however. Criticisms of a lack of clear evidence behind licensing policies hint at wider dissatisfaction with licensing decision-making, and a possible appetite for review of current licensing legislation. This could create space for public health advocates to influence the licensing system to include consideration of health harms from alcohol, and in turn, be a more effective mechanism for protecting health.
While the landscape of the 2020 COVID-19 response in the UK was highly exceptional, understanding how newsprint media represented the changing restrictions on alcohol sales suggests possible future pathways for using licensing structures to reduce harms from alcohol.
Written by Dr Joanna Reynolds, Department of Psychology, Sociology & Politics, Sheffield Hallam University.
All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.