Professional Comment

Drinking Through the Mask: Age Verification Hurdles in On Trade Sectors Post COVID-19

By Ed Heaver, CEO of Serve Legal (

COVID-19 changed drinking habits. Alcohol sales increased by 2% – 5% across the globe and drinkers rejoiced at the convenience of having their age-restricted products delivered to their doorsteps, including young adults who would not, and should not have access to them.

According to Serve Legal’s recent comprehensive audits across the UK and Ireland, a concerning decrease in pass rates for alcohol purchases creeped up, and it’s not a pretty picture. Pass rates are instances where age verification IDs are promptly requested, and only after the satisfactory requirements are met, is the individual allowed to purchase the restricted product. In the UK and Ireland, individuals under 18 are not allowed to purchase alcohol, and to maintain compliance with these regulations, several policies like the Think21 and Think 25 policy are set in place. Think21 and Think 25 policy is one which compels retailers to ask for proof of age if customers appear to be under 21 or 25, but due to off-site deliveries and face mask protocols in place, the pandemic made age verifications a difficult ordeal.

During their pre, during and post pandemic audits, Serve Legal found that in on-trade sectors like bars, restaurants and pubs, the pass rates were the worst. What started at 71% pre-pandemic, dropped by 1% during the pandemic era and to a shocking 60% post COVID. 40% of Serve Legal’s auditors aged 18-19 were able to purchase alcohol without any age verification protocols in place, and it is not a good sign. This drastic change is the result of several factors playing in simultaneously, with one of the biggest ones being ‘’higher turnovers in the post-COVID labour market’’ says Ed Heaver, Founder and CEO of Serve Legal. ‘’The pandemic has worsened the already struggling retail industry when it comes to age verification and compliance. The audits we conduct are evidence of the decline in pass rates, especially with the on-trade sector where compliance was low to begin with. The labour market has faced higher turnovers than expected due to COVID, and it’s putting increased pressure on new staff members when they’re still adjusting to their roles and acquiring the necessary knowledge to address age-restricted sales challenges.’’

There’s a rising need for retailers to adopt responsible practices when dealing with age-restricted product sales to vulnerable adults. It is crucial to prioritise the well-being and safety of these individuals, while also ensuring that the retailers are meeting all regulatory requirements by implementing appropriate policies, regulations, and training for their staff. The policies they introduce should outline the steps to be followed in verifying the age of customers, including acceptable forms of identification, and the process for refusing sales to underage individuals. Staff must be trained appropriately to equip them with the necessary knowledge and skills, so that they can make informed decisions and effectively handle age-restricted transactions. Areas of neglect must be identified and assessed through regular policy checks and independent audits, so that there is no room left for error.

As the need for responsible practices in age-restricted products, like alcohol, continues to rise, it is upon the retailers to comply with the regulations, not only due to legal obligations, but also as a moral imperative to contribute to a safer and more conscientious retail environment.