NHS plans to roll-out Drunk Tanks

Two reports in The Times today illustrate the continuing problem of excess alcohol consumption in our towns and cities – which it is hard to dissociate from excess provision.

Drunk Tanks

In the first report we are told that the NHS is considering the introduction of national network of city centre drunk tanks to allow what are euphemistically called “revellers” – but whom I shall call “drunks” – to sleep it off without over-stretching the A&E departments of our hospitals. The problem is a real one: a study in Newcastle has found that on a Saturday night / Sunday morning up to 70 per cent of A &E attendances are alcohol-related. Simon Stevens, head of NHS England puts it pithily: “NHS doesn’t stand for ‘National Hangover Service’”.

Some of our more enlightened towns and cities are already offering equivalents to the proposed drunk tanks.  Since 2012 Cardiff has operated a nurse-led alcohol treatment centre on Friday and Saturday nights. Simon Moore of Cardiff University says there is evidence that drunk tanks in other cities have helped cut the number of assaults on NHS staff by 40 per cent. In Manchester the police have opened a “safe haven” café and relaxation area, where they send drunk people found wandering the streets. On my recent late-night visit to Norwich I saw mobile medical centres with what I took to be paramedics – I have no precise detail as to how they operated, but I have no doubt they would not be deployed unless they were thought necessary.

Late Night Levy

The second Times report states that of the 223 areas in England and Wales officially classified as “saturated” with pubs, bars and late night refreshment outlets, only 8 have brought in a Late Night Levy – the scheme, introduced by Theresa May as home Secretary, to make pubs and bars pay towards the cost of policing the night-time economy. The Home Office had predicted ten times the number of licensing authorities would introduce a Late Night Levy. Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Healthcare Alliance, is reported as saying “The impact of late-night levies has been hugely disappointing because so few local authorities have chosen to implement them.”

To my mind, it is appalling enough that the NHS is driven to contemplate a national network of “Drunk Tanks” in order to relieve our hospitals from the attendance of weekend drunks, whose ailments are self-inflicted, self-indulgent and utterly selfish. But if such a scheme is to be rolled out it is only right that it should be funded by those profiting from the over-selling of alcoholic drinks in licensed premises.

In the years following the Licensing Act 2003 coming into force we have seen an  alarming over-licensing of pubs, bars and clubs – often in the teeth of a cumulative impact policy designed to prevent precisely what is being done.  The scale of the problems of alcohol-fuelled disorder on our streets is a national disgrace; but since those problems are indubitably there, in full force, for anyone who has eyes to see, the under-utilised Late Night Levy is available, ‘ready and willing’  to provide a partial funding of the services we employ to tackle them.


That there should be a call for drunk tanks is yet another illustration that the Licensing Act 2003 is not working. A House of Lords Select Committee last year reported that the Act is “seriously flawed” and that a root and branch re-think of our licensing laws is necessary. Regrettably, the Government response was to minimise the problems and reject the Committee’s central recommendations. What a lost opportunity! An ill-thought-out piece of legislation. A licensing regime that is often ineffective, sometimes a disgrace. Consequences we can see on our streets, in police vans, and in hospital A&E departments, every Friday and Saturday night. A House of Lords Report that identifies the problems and offers solutions… And next to nothing will be done.

Gerald Gouriet QC

See also: A Lost Opportunity

See also Cumulative Impact Policies