HEALTH leaders and Sheffield politicians have reacted with alarm after Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg suggested drunks should pay for their own treatment if they end up on accident and emergency wards.
The Sheffield Hallam MP told listeners on his Call Clegg phone-in programme that the public should not have to ‘pick up the tab’ if drunken people injure themselves through fights and accidents.
Mr Clegg said: “I’ve quite a lot of sympathy with the basic principle that says why should someone who goes out, gets blind drunk, behaves appallingly, gets themselves into trouble and a scrap - why should other people always have to pick up the tab to help them out?”
But Charlie Carruth, regional officer for trade union Unison, which represents thousands of health workers in the city, said the suggestion was ‘simply unworkable’.
Mr Carruth said: “A&E staff put up with quite unbelievable and frightening behaviour, especially at weekends, and such a suggestion will not reduce this but more likely increase it.
“Alcohol availability and pricing, and how it is marketed, should be where you change things.
“Where do you draw the line - if you are overdosing on drugs, do you ask them which debit or credit card they would prefer to pay on?
“The job of A&E staff is to treat people, not tell them if they aren’t willing to sign to say they will pay for treatment they will not be treated.
“It is simply unworkable and turns the NHS more into a business than a health service.”
He added: “Why draw the line at drink and drugs? Why not smoking, obesity and indeed people taking part in high-risk sporting activities?”
Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield said: “It’s not practical. How would it work? Will hospitals breathalyse people? What about innocent victims of violence who’ve had a few drinks? We should be careful about undermining the principle of an NHS free at the point of delivery.”
Meanwhile Coun Jillian Creasy, a GP and Green Party member on Sheffield Council, said: “The NHS should be free at the point of need and it’s very worrying if a member of the Coalition is proposing any exceptions to this.”
And Coun Bryan Lodge, Sheffield Council cabinet member for finance, added: “Where do you draw the line - what about people playing sport, or drivers?”
Mr Clegg admitted it would be ‘tricky’ to implement fees but said it was not acceptable for the NHS to cover the cost.
It is estimated that around two million visits are made to A&E nationally because of alcohol-related injuries each year.