Reducing harm caused by alcohol


Alcohol policy measures could reduce ambulance callouts

The University of Stirling have recommended new alcohol policy measures, including minimum unit pricing, restrictions on online sales, and licensing changes, should be considered to reduce drink-related ambulance callouts in Scotland.

Researchers led by Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, Director of the Institute for Social Marketing and Health, studied data from ambulance callouts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking at data from the frontline of the NHS – the Scottish Ambulance Service – and adjusting for the fact that ambulance callouts fell during this period for other reasons, the study shows that there were disproportionately large short-term reductions in alcohol-related callouts in April and May 2020, when licensed premises were closed, compared to the previous year. This was a situation that paramedics described as a ‘welcome break’ from the hostile, alcohol-fuelled scenes experienced in towns and cities on weekend nights pre-pandemic.

After April, the proportion of alcohol-related callouts started to return to pre-lockdown levels, replaced by callouts to homes instead of to licensed premises. Instead of occurring mostly at weekends, the calls were spread throughout the week.

Ambulance clinicians and paramedics were interviewed as part of the study. Several stated that the reduction in alcohol-related calls allowed them to spend more time on other calls, while their experiences shed light on how difficult alcohol makes their work:

It’s so nice to go to work on a Friday night knowing that you don’t have to go into pubs and clubs... it’s made a huge difference.


Professor Fitzgerald said, "The views expressed by paramedics are powerful and give pause for thought about whether business recovery post-COVID has to mean a return to the ‘mass intoxication’ described.

“This is surely an opportunity for politicians and clinicians to show leadership in pushing for better alcohol policies that protect the NHS and frontline services. At a time when policymakers want to support the hospitality sector, but also wish to protect health services, there is an opportunity to put in place win-win policies that can do both.”

The research team suggest that one such policy could be to increase the minimum unit price of shop-purchased alcohol to reduce consumption within homes without affecting prices in bars. Other possibilities discussed are restrictions on online sales and licensing changes.

In response to the study’s findings and recommendations, Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland said, “Whether it’s weekend nights out or weekdays at home, these findings show the impact of alcohol on the Scottish Ambulance Service is unacceptable and unsustainable. Paramedics should not have to dread working a Friday or a Saturday night shift. The increase in callouts related to home drinking during the pandemic is concerning and reinforces previous findings that some of us, particularly heavier drinkers, have increased our drinking. With a sixth of all callouts being alcohol-related in 2020, we agree that further action needs to be taken to change Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol. We urge the Scottish Government to increase the minimum unit price of alcohol to 65p per unit, limit how available alcohol is in our communities and to put in place restrictions on alcohol marketing.”

 Find out more about the study.


4 December 2021