A Night on the Tiles

James Brokenshire recounts his night shadowing the London Ambulance Service and the Metropolitan Police as they respond to the drink-related problems of a Friday night on the streets of London.

The problems of alcohol fuelled crime and drink related illness have become ever clearer. The statistics speak for themselves. But it is the human cost and the cost on society that these numbers often fail to get across. And the pressures that excessive alcohol consumption places on our emergency services.

Last night I saw some of this myself. Spending the night criss-crossing London with the specialist team from the Metropolitan Police's clubs and vice unit responding to crime problems linked to licensed premises. Sitting with the paramedics from the London Ambulance Service in the back of their ‘booze bus' as they pick up the human pieces of those whose night on the town ends up with a night on a trolley in A&E.

My abiding memory from the night is the professionalism and good humour of those at the sharp end of dealing with binge boozing. Despite the fact that the work is constant and that resources are stretched they get on with the job of keeping people safe and helping those for whom it all gets too much.

I'm told I will need a strong stomach for the night. And this is tested soon enough. A girl sits in the back of the special alcohol ambulance. She is distraught. She's been sick. She is sobbing and she is incoherent. She can't be older than her late teens. She claims her drink has been spiked. The reality is that it is simply down to alcohol and that if drugs had been involved she wouldn't even be responding as much as she is.

As she sobs, she unburdens her problems at home, at work and her lack of self-esteem. In many ways alcohol is this young girl's means of blocking all of this out. But it masks much more deep-seated problems of which tonight's distressing episode is just one symptom. She has underlying health problems and is transported to St Thomas's Hospital to be checked out. My depressing feeling is that it won't be too long before this sad episode repeats itself again.

As we head back into town we are directed to a London bendy-bus which has pulled up on the side of the street. The driver reports an old man slumped on one of the seats at the back unconscious. There is a strong smell of urine. With compassion the London Ambulance team gently wakes him and tells him that it's time to get off. Eventually, disorientated and slightly dishevelled the man in his sixties is guided to the doors. With no need of emergency care, the man stumbles off into the night. The paramedics can do no more even though the stench of booze and his demeanour point to the fact that he is an alcoholic.

We get a call from the police. They are about to respond to an urgent call from an outer London borough after a brawl has broken out at a club. I change vehicles from the booze bus ambulance to an unmarked police car and we speed out through the late night traffic. When we arrive the scene has been cordoned off with the familiar blue and white police tape. Forensics are being taken inside. A small crowd of young men is hanging around and a contingent of uniformed police officers lines the streets. It's reported that someone has been ‘glassed' in the face with a bottle inside the club. There are spots of blood on the pavement. We're told it's the second problem this venue has had in as many nights.

The vice unit have been called to provide specialist support to the duty police inspector managing the incident on the legal options for obtaining a closure of the club. After discussions, the manager agrees to shut for the night voluntarily and is advised that a closure tomorrow would also be in order. He needs to talk to his superiors from the large company that owns the venue. As the discussions continue, another scuffle breaks out further down the road from a couple of guys whose self-control has gone out of the window after getting tanked up all night.

It's suggested that pay day may have promoted more problems. The reality is that it's a pay out for all of us every night in dealing with the social and human consequences of alcohol. The ambulance team leave a leaflet with everyone they pick up on the booze bus. It highlights that every 999 call out for having had one drink too many costs around two hundred pounds. That's with out taking account of the police and all of the other costs linked to binge boozing - or the fact call out to someone sozzled by drink is taking an ambulance away from someone who may be seriously ill or injured. With 60,000 calls last year this leaving a growing financial hangover and we are all picking up the tab.

The romantic view of London is one where the streets are paved with gold. If last night is anything to go by, the reality is very different. London's streets are more likely to be paved with bodily fluids and broken glass. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who are prepared pick up the pieces. It's been an eye opening night for me, but for our emergency services there is nothing unusual in what I've seen. For them this is business as usual. For me it says a lot if this is now the norm for a night out on the town.