The chief executive of the NHS, Simon Stevens, is monitoring how drunk tanks, aka “booze buses”, or mobile alcohol recovery units, some of which are already operating around the country, run on New Year’s Eve, to see if they should become a regular feature to take pressure off A&E departments. A national study into the impact of drunk tanks is also under way.
An estimated 12-15% of people requiring assistance at emergency departments are acutely intoxicated. At the weekend, and periods such as New Year, this rises to 70%. So it’s understandable why Stevens says that it’s not the “national hangover service” and calls revellers “selfish”. The drunks take up valuable time and space, wet and soil themselves and sometimes abuse hospital staff. They can’t just be left unattended, as they could choke on their vomit.
It sounds as though it would make sense to move these drunks into “safe spaces”, where most could just sleep it off, though some would still need to be admitted to hospital. No one wants drunks cubicle-blocking, frightening patients and abusing staff. However, could we at least acknowledge that the drunks don’t want it either? The vast majority of intoxicated people wouldn’t intend to get into such states – it wouldn’t be on a to-do list (“End the night in casualty shouting at a nurse and pissing my trousers”).
This is what grates about the reaction to the drunk tanks – the arguments that the acutely intoxicated don’t “deserve” help. The widespread judgment, piety, even hypocrisy. Who hasn’t been off their skulls at least once in their life? Well, perhaps some of you haven’t, but I have. I didn’t end up in a hospital emergency department, but I could have done and maybe should have done. And while my binge drinking was nothing to be proud of, looking around, it didn’t seem that unusual; quite the opposite.
These days, I can barely drink. I’d love to say that this was an intelligent, mature decision, but the truth is that I’m past it – I couldn’t take what had started to become three-day, nuclear-strength hangovers. However, although I don’t binge drink any more, I still remember doing it: it’s like a scuzzy, low-rent version of a dancer’s muscle memory – you never forget. One thing I remember is how helpless it can all feel; how, far from consciously making bad decisions, sometimes you go beyond being able to make any at all.
Maybe that’s why I feel a modicum of solidarity with the drunks. They might be irresponsible, but is it entirely accurate to label them selfish? “Selfish” implies that a conscious decision has been made to get incapacitated, and clog up emergency departments. Arguably, there is some selfishness in not making a conscious decision to avoid doing this, but try explaining that to a sozzled brain a few glasses down.
It serves us to remember that the NHS is already calamitously underfunded before it starts dealing with drunk people. There are also myriad, complex underlying societal factors at play here: from widespread availability of cheap booze, to irresponsible serving in bars and clubs, to the low take-up of council late-night tariffs. Then there’s the fact that many “weekend drunks” have far deeper problems (alcoholism; mental health issues) and nowhere else to take them.
This kneejerk scorn for binge drinking also seems to echo a general distasteful lack of compassion for alcoholics. Cast your minds back to the public debate over whether the late footballer George Best “deserved” his liver transplant. Of course, Best deserved help when he was sick. In the same way, binge drinkers “deserve” help when they’re temporarily incapable. There but for the grace, and all that. While Stevens, or anyone else on the NHS frontline, has every right to label drunks selfish (or even far ruder things), some of the rest of us should be wary of throwing stones in glasshouses.
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