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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

If you don't cane it on Saturday night, you won't know about the SOS bus

Returning to my Norwich hotel in the early hours of Sunday I saw the SOS bus, something which I have since learned is increasingly becoming a feature of the weekend in British city centres.

The SOS Bus is a mobile medical unit cum social work resource parked in the town's clubland. It's primarily there to keep young people who have been, in the jargon, "overdoing it" from coming to harm. It was started in response to a tragedy in 2000 when three young people in Norwich all died on the same night in drink-related incidents. It's funded by the police, the council, local club owners and other agencies such as churches. It's manned by volunteers.

I can see the benefits of this. It no doubt stops nasty cases turning into fatalities while taking the pressure off the local A&E. Young doctors I've talked to reckon that without drink the average A&E would be a comparatively serene place at the weekend. I wouldn't be surprised if the club owners' support of the SOS Bus also helps when they come to renew their licences.

At the same time you can't help but think about the message a service like this sends over time. "Society", as represented by the law and the local authorities, accepts the fact that oblivion drinking is here to stay and is prepared to devote resources to protecting those who voluntarily indulge in it from its inevitable consequences.

In the 19th century organisations like the Sally Army and the Band of Hope patrolled the back streets of major cities picking up drunks. The best they could hope for in those circumstances was a new recruit. The least they could expect was a little shame. Maybe nobody feels that any more.