Drunk tanks may have to become the norm in towns and cities to keep “selfish” revellers out of A&E, the head of the NHS in England says.
Simon Stevens said he would be closely monitoring how the mobile units cope on New Year’s Eve before deciding whether they should become a regular feature.
Drunk tanks provide a safe place for those who have over-indulged to be checked over and sleep it off.
They are often used over the festive period to stop people ending up at A&E.
A number of cities have already introduced the units – also known as booze buses – all-year-round, including Newcastle, Cardiff, Manchester and Bristol.
And now Mr Stevens said he may start recommending others follow suit, given an estimated 15% of attendances at A&E are due to alcohol consumption.
This rises to about 70% on Friday and Saturday nights.
He said he was thinking about the move after spending time with ambulance crews in London and the West Midlands in recent weeks.
“I’ve seen first-hand how paramedics and A&Es are being called on to deal with drunk and aggressive behaviour.”
But Dr Katherine Henderson, a consultant in emergency medicine from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals, said it might be better to have a conversation about people drinking less on a night out.
She told the BBC: “By making this facility, it’s like saying ‘you can depend on the NHS to provide you with a safe place to sober up'”.
“You’re saying ‘there’s a safety net for you’, rather than saying ‘how are you going to get yourself and your friends home safely’?”
Dr Henderson also said she was concerned that NHS frontline staff were working in the mobile units, when “they could be helping others”.
But she conceded that the last thing busy hospitals needed was more patients coming in to A&E.
“We are seeing people who are so intoxicated that they need to be on a trolley – which takes up a whole cubicle space; people who need cleaning up – which takes up a lot of nursing time; and people with serious injuries, who may be difficult to spot among the many that are extremely drunk.
“It’s something we just don’t need.”
In Newcastle on a Friday and Saturday night, a Safe Haven van already operates to help vulnerable people – not just people who are drunk.
Dame Vera Baird, the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, whose office part funds the van, said: “It’s a safe location to help anybody who needs any support. It saves an enormous amount of money and time.”
‘Sleep it off’
Prof Simon Moore, from Cardiff University, is carrying out a study into the impact of different types of drunk tanks based in six cities in relieving pressure on the emergency services.
He said: “The very, very drunk with head injuries and similar will still need to go to A&E, but the health service is very risk-averse so they have a tendency to refer to A&E if they suspect something is wrong.
“So all you need is a good trained person – a paramedic or nurse – in the city centre to say ‘we can hold off for a bit, this person is going to be fine in an hour or so’, and then they can go home and sleep it off.”
Prof Moore said it should be “a joined-up service” that refers people for treatment for their underlying drink problems.
In Scotland, there are no drunk tanks in operation and the government said there were no plans to introduce them.
How do drunk tanks work?
Bristol launched the UK’s first drunk tank three years ago in a partnership between the police, ambulance and local hospital.
Known officially as an alcohol recovery centre, it is a state-of-the-art medical facility contained in a 60ft-long converted articulated lorry.
The vehicle has beds and seats as well as two showers. It comes with medical drips, oxygen, blood testing equipment and a pump system for the worst-affected revellers.
It is staffed by paramedics who provide basic treatment, although those who need it can still be sent to A&E.
Since it was launched, other cities including Manchester, Cardiff and Newcastle, have tried their own versions. The National Institute for Health Research is now looking at how effective they are at dealing with drunks.
As the nation prepares to see in the new year, Simon Stevens reminded revellers to be responsible.
“When the health service is pulling out all the stops to care for sick and vulnerable patients who rightly and genuinely need our support, it’s frankly selfish when ambulance paramedics and A&E nurses have to be diverted to looking after revellers who have overindulged.
“NHS doesn’t stand for ‘National Hangover Service’,” he added.