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Britain gears up for the 'merriest' Christmas in history


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Britain gears up for the 'merriest' Christmas in history


By STEVE DOUGHTY Last updated at 23:30pm on 17th December 2006

DrinksoutPA_228x187.jpgBoozy: Women will drink five times the recommended limit this Christmas.




Britons are headed for a Christmas marred by unprecedented levels of drunkenness in homes and pubs and a wave of thuggery on the streets, experts have warned.

A new breakdown of booze buying showed that millions are planning to celebrate the holidays with the heaviest-ever Christmas alcohol binge.

And the increased scale of drinking comes as police were told to withdraw from a public order campaign meant to control levels of drunken disorder.

The move has provoked fears of a burst of violence and vandalism in towns and cities already struggling to cope with the impact of the liberalisation of licensing and round-the-clock drinking laws - which health experts yesterday branded 'a licence to kill'.

The British Medical Association said yesterday that hospitals will put on extra shifts of medical staff to cope with the greater demand for treatment at accident and emergency departments over Christmas.

Doctors, nurses and ancillary staff will be taken off day work and asked to put in extra night shifts to deal with the burden brought by drunken accidents and assaults.

Drinks industry and medical analysts believe the unprecedented level of drink sales means that over the 12 days of the traditional Christmas - a period that includes the New Year celebrations - an average person will sink the equivalent of 18 pints of beer, eight bottles of wine, a bottle of spirits and a glass of sherry.

The predicted consumption - by retail analyst Mintel - amounts to 137 units over less than a fortnight, nearly four times the recommended amount for a man and more than five times that for a woman.

The effect of cheap alcohol that is more available than ever before provoked alarm among medical experts, police officers and politicians yesterday.

The British Liver Trust said: 'The current alcohol laws are a licence to kill.'

Chief Executive Alison Rogers said: 'The uptake of alcohol at Christmas is phenomenal. It is a time when people get seriously into their drink because they have so much free time.

'They don't have to work and they don't have to drive. Some people go out and they really pile the units up.'

Professor Ian Gilmore, a liver specialist who is President of the Royal College of Physicians, said: 'I would be worried that with the increasing availability of alcohol and the pummeting prices in supermarkets this could be the heaviest drinking Christmas ever.

'I am aghast at the cheap drink offers being made by supermarkets. You can hardly go round supermarkets for falling over special offers, particularly on beer. We are in a culture where alcohol is around for 24 hours a day.'

Supermarkets planning to open round the clock in the days leading up to Christmas have been under fire even from the brewing industry this year for their willingness to use cheap drink promotions to pull in more shoppers.

This year will also see 600 pubs and bars staying open for 24 hours in the run-up to Christmas - three times as many as last year.

A record number of pubs are expected to take the opportunity offered by Labour's licensing law liberalisation to stay open into the early hours over the holiday.

But there is deepening concern at the Government's decision to cut back on policing of drunken hooliganism.

Home Secretary John Reid has quiely abandoned the six-week seasonal Alcohol Misuse Enforcement Campaign that usually gives police and trading standards officers an extra £2.5 million to provide an extra presence on the streets and crack down on shops breaking laws and selling drink to children.

Last Christmas, the campaign led to 25,500 arrests as police dealt with a huge tally of 33,358 offences. More than 8,000 on-the-spot fines were handed out.

With police starved of the cash - which is sufficient to pay for 18,000 extra eight-hour shifts by constables - many similar offences will go unpunished this year.

There are also fears children will find it much easier to get their hands on alcohol, as the linked crack down by trading standards has also been ditched.

Last year, test purchase operations caught three out of ten pubs and two out of ten off-licences selling drink to minors. It led to almost 650 court summonses for unscrupulous landlords and shopkeepers.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg accused Mr Reid of 'shocking complacency'.

The Home Secretary has made no public announcement of his decision, but was forced to reveal the truth in Parliamentary answers.

Mr Clegg said: 'The Government's shocking complacency will be greeted with disbelief by anyone with any experience of alcohol-related crime and disorder in our town and city centres.

'It is bad enough for the Home Office to pretend all is well when rates of alcohol-fuelled disorder have gone up, but to do so at Christmas time when these problems typically increase is especially negligent.

'How can the Government claim it is tough on antisocial behaviour when it can't even manage to stump up the cash to clamp down on illegal sales of alcohol to children?'

Inspector Glen Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said: 'I would not have thought it is a good idea to stop these campaigns. The extra funding helped to get a few more officers onto the streets.

'Too many people think the more they can drink the better. It is putting a tremendous strain on police, ambulance crews and hospital A&E departments.'

The Home Office said that police had now gained experience in using tactics to deal with drunken behaviour and forces regarded dealing with alcohol-fuelled hooliganism as 'part of their everyday core business'.

However, the signs are that the need for extra policing of drunken behaviour is increasing, not diminishing.

A police and trading standards campaign against alcohol-related disorder last summer produced an average of 936 arrests, compared with 531 a day in November and December last year, after the new licensing laws had been introduced in the run-up to last Christmas.

Adjusted to take into account differences in the size of the police campaigns, the figures show that in the summer drink-related arrests were up by 86 per cent on Christmas 2005, and 160 per cent on Christmas 2004.

The estimate that an average adult will consume 137 units over the 12-day holiday period was made by industry analysts, based on retail sales predictions, and endorsed by medical experts.

A unit is half a pint of beer, a pub-sized glass of wine, or one measure of spirits. Official advice says that men should not drink more than 21 units and week and women 14.

Professor Gilmore, a specialist at the Royal Liverpool Hospital, said: 'When I became a liver specialist 25 years ago cirrhosis was a disease of middle-aged and elderly men. Now we see it is not unusual to see women with end-stage liver disease in their twenties, which was just unheard of 20 years ago.

'People forget that glasses are getting larger and drinks are getting stronger. Many people who never drink spirits will drink them at Christmas.

'The drinks they pour themselves at home could contain three or four units. If you see a single measure in a pub it hardly wets the bottom of the glass.'

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