Prime minister David Cameron praises Norwich’s SOS Bus as an ‘innovative’ solution in the battle against Britain’s ‘scandal’ of drunkenness
David Cameron yesterday outlined how the government would attempt to help emergency services 'rise to the challenge' when laying out its forthcoming alcohol strategy.
The government, which will publish its alcohol strategy for England later this year, will recommend higher minimum prices for alcohol as part of the proposals.
The use of US-inspired 'drunk tanks' – cells to house people overnight while they sober up – is also among a raft of measures which might be adopted to tackle the problem of alcohol abuse in this country.
Mr Cameron said he would be looking at a number of 'innovative' solutions to addressing the problems caused by alcohol, including replicating Norwich's pioneering SOS Bus project in other parts of the country.
He said: 'Whether it's the police officers in A&E that have been deployed in some hospitals, the booze buses in Soho and Norwich, or the drunk tanks used abroad, we need innovative solutions to confront the rising tide of unacceptable behaviour.'
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Sarah Mintey, principal of the Open Youth Trust, which operates and manages the bus – based in Norwich's Prince of Wales Road every Friday and Saturday night – said she was delighted the project, set up in 2001, following river tragedies in the city, had been referred to.
She said: 'We're delighted Mr Cameron has made reference to the service and to the sterling job the volunteers do. We met Theresa May and David Cameron last February and he was exploring then how they could roll out the project to other cities.
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'For us, the SOS Bus is all about getting people home safe and sound having had a safe night out. The vast majority of people in Norwich are doing that in a responsible way and there's such warmth for the SOS Bus and to the volunteers.
'People know this team of volunteers are out there week in week out to make sure people have a safe night out and we're delighted he's made reference to the service.
'Any accolade and torch that can be shone on their role is definitely something that's a good thing.'
The project, which has helped more than 6,000 people since it was launched, is comprised of two vehicles – including one medical unit – which continue to prove a vital lifeline for thousands of people in the city every week and help relieve pressure on Norfolk's A&E departments.
But while the prime minister is keen for other towns and cities to follow Norwich's lead in setting up an SOS Bus, it forms just one part of the solution to a problem which has got worse over the years.
As reported in January last year the number of people going into hospital with alcohol related illness and injury has doubled in less than a decade in East Anglia.
Drink-related hospital admissions for both NHS Norfolk and NHS Great Yarmouth and Waveney primary care trusts are increasing.
In the year to April 2010 there were a total of 20,633 admissions to hospitals in Norfolk and Waveney, up from 9,815 in 2002/03.
While the rate of admissions in the East of England remained below the national average it increased by 14pc in the space of 12 months.
Provisional figures for April to June 2010 show that 4,069 admissions to the largest hospitals in Norfolk –Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn, were caused by alcohol. That is 9pc higher than the same period in 2009. At the James Paget University Hospital in Gorleston, 1,405 admissions were alcohol related – 13pc higher than in 2009.
Dr Martin Phillips, a liver specialist at the N&N, said in the nine years he had been at the hospital he had noticed a worrying trend.
He said: 'Even in that time there's been a major increase in the number of cases we're seeing. Not only are we seeing more, but we're seeing them at younger ages than before.
'The youngest person I've dealt with was a 19-year-old girl who had severe liver damage as a result of alcohol. The other problem you've got is women are much more susceptible to damage than men.'
Dr Phillips said it was a complex issue to try to resolve with a range of things which could be done, both by the government and the health service, to try and find solutions.
But Dr Phillips said one of the most important factors in trying to bring alcohol abuse in this country under control was introducing a minimum price.
He said: 'Minimum pricing will make a big difference. It will make a big difference to young people and to the very heavy alcohol consumers, who won't be able to afford it.
'It's by no means the only thing we can do, but one of the biggest measures would be some sort of government backing in terms of minimum pricing.'
Chief Insp Gavin Tempest, who is responsible for community safety at Norfolk police, said it was a bit too early to comment on government proposals in terms of things like minimum pricing and other measures such as drunk tanks.
But he said the current licensing laws – brought in as part of the Licensing Act 2003, which was aimed at creating a continental caf� style culture but, critics say, have led to more binge drinking and disorder –have put more pressure on police and other service providers in Norwich.
Chief Insp Tempest said a small amount of venues 'exploit' a relatively small market of people out between 3am and 6am at weekends.
He said those who are out, particularly at weekends, and have taken part in 'intense alcohol consumption' and succumb to alcohol then have a direct effect on police either as an 'offender' or as a victim.
But Chief Insp Tempest said Norwich was fortunate to have an SOS bus which, for the past decade, has provided a safe haven for drunk and vulnerable people thereby relieving pressure not only on the police, but the NHS too.
He said: 'We're lucky in Norwich where there's an established SOS Bus safe haven.
'It was set up because of deaths where people had a drink and drowned and it was meant to provide a hand rail to prevent that, but it's much broader than that.
'Before the setting up of the SOS Bus the police were directly responsible for people who had succumbed to too much alcohol and it was our problem to deal with that.'
Chief Insp Tempest added that education about the dangers of alcohol also had a major part to play in trying to solve some of the problems it caused.
He said: 'There is a huge role in education.
'There are agencies such as The Matthew Project who target young people in particular who are potentially at risk, in education in schools and by way of roadshows.'
But society too, said Chief Insp Tempest, had a role to play in educating others – but particularly the young, for whom getting drunk was seen as a rite of passage – about the dangers of drink and getting drunk.
This is a point which the prime minister himself alluded to yesterday.
He said: 'This isn't just about more rules and regulation. It's about responsibility and a sense of respect for others.'