By Gráinne Ní Aodha and Cate McCurry, PA
The Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said he did raise public health concerns with his Government colleagues before they decided to relax the country’s licensing laws.
It follows reports that the Department of Health’s concerns about the knock-on health effects of expanding the hours when alcohol can be sold were removed from a Government memo.
Cabinet has approved legislation that would allow pubs to open from 10.30am to 12.30am seven days a week while nightclubs could remain open until 6am and serve alcohol until 5am.
The changes will come into force next year if approved by the Dáil and Seanad.
In response, the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) warned that the extension would be “regressive and harmful” and contrary to the Government’s goal to reduce alcohol intake by 20 per cent.
The Drinkaware Barometer, an annual study that looks at Irish adults’ drinking behaviour, found that one in four drinkers are binge-drinking and more than half of adults are drinking on a weekly basis.
The survey carried out by Behaviour & Attitudes this year found that 27 per cent of Irish adults typically binge-drink when they do have alcohol.
Speaking at Dr Steevens’ Hospital, HSE Chief Clinical Officer Dr Colm Henry said there was a link between the hours that alcohol is available and medical problems related to chronic alcohol intake.
He said that some public health doctors have concerns about the impact of alcohol on society, saying that alcohol can contribute to acute and chronic illnesses.
“Any public health strategy for Ireland for alcohol has to recognise the morbidity associated with alcohol,” he said.
When asked about health concerns about easing licensing laws, Mr Donnelly said: “My view and government’s view is we have the right balance.
“I’m precluded from talking about exactly what was discussed at Cabinet, but what I can say is I did raise the fact that the public health team within the Department of Health have significant concerns.
“Yes, I did raise that.
“My observations were this: we have the balance right. But critically, we have to keep pursuing the measures that we have in place in terms of minimum unit pricing, advertising and others.”
He said that work needed to continue to target “harmful, disruptive” drinking.
“I introduced minimum unit pricing based off the model in Scotland that worked very well. Not everyone wanted to see it, there was resistance to it, we brought it in. I think it’s going to make a big difference.”
He said that restrictions on alcohol advertising, particularly around children’s events and sporting events, were also important.
The minister continued: “Other countries managed to open their licensed premises longer.
“I think we have to have a little bit of faith in the Irish people. We have licensing laws that have been in place – the update we got at Cabinet – since before 1800.
“So I think we do need modern licensing laws. People do need to be able to get on and live their life. And obviously, from a public health perspective, we will make sure that the supports are in place.”
Mr Donnelly also defended his Government’s record in resourcing the health service this winter, after HSE officials warned that hospitals will come under severe pressure, particularly due to Covid-19 and the flu season.
“We’ve increased the number of people working in our public health service in the HSE at levels never before seen,” Mr Donnelly told reporters on Friday.
“Pre-Covid, there were maybe 2,000-3,000 net increases in the workforce per year, sometimes a little bit more, sometimes a little less. And in 2020, there were over 6,000. Last year over 6,000.
“This year, it’ll be around 5,000, and we’ve sanctioned another 6,000 next year.
“This will be the third record year of recruitment in the history of the HSE,” he said.
He did acknowledge challenges with recruitment in some areas, however, putting it down to the high-quality training of Irish healthcare workers and working conditions in Irish hospitals.
“There’s a lot of competition there for (our healthcare workers). Why? Because they’re so well-trained.”
He said the four-year nursing degrees in Ireland are “the envy of the nursing world internationally”.
“A lot of nursing degrees are three years so the nursing graduates coming out of Ireland are sought by the Canadians, the Americans, the Australians, the British and many others. What we have to make sure is that our public health service is a fantastic place to work,” he said.