Bhatia hits out over councillors’ cross-border ‘booze cruise’ idea

COUNCILLORS over the border have been branded “irresponsible” after describing Scotland’s imminent minimum pricing on alcohol as a “golden opportunity’.

Northumberland County Council’s Labour Group is reported as wondering if it should promote ‘booze cruise’ type visits to its neighbours over the border when the legislation comes into force in Scotland next year.

But, Councillor Catriona Bhatia, a non-executive director of Borders NHS Board, this week slammed the councillors over the border.

“The statements by the Councillors from south of the Border are frankly irresponsible. Similar words were said to encourage people across the Border when the smoking ban in public places was introduced in Scotland, but England soon followed our lead in implementing this important public health measure, and I am sure it will only be a matter of time before alcohol prices are equalised cross border as this misplaced opportunism is curtailed.”

And Dr Eric Baijal, Joint Director of Public Health NHS Borders and Scottish Borders Council and chairman of the Borders Alcohol & Drugs Partnership, said: “My professional view is that there is strong evidence that the price of alcohol is related to how much people drink. In Scotland the death rate associated with alcohol has more than doubled since the 1980s.

“The Minimum Pricing Bill is an opportunity to reduce both harm to individuals and their families associated with misuse of alcohol, but also to wider society in terms of increased burden on services such as Accident and Emergency departments, Fire Service and Police.”

“It would be disappointing if this effective public health measure were used to gain profits for businesses at the expense of other people’s health. I appreciate there may be a different political view.”

The Scottish government is introducing minimum pricing for alcohol next year in a bid to cut the nation’s binge drinking.

From April, one unit of alcohol will cost a minimum of 50p in Scotland, meaning a basic bottle of wine will be £4.70 compared with England, where it is around £3.50.

Last week the BBC reported Northumberland County Council’s Labour Group as describing it as a “golden opportunity” to boost spending in the county’s towns.

And yesterday group leader Grant Davey defended his position to TheSouthern.

“We suggested this way back in February, we said then the introduction of minimum alcohol unit pricing in Scotland may be an opportunity to increase trade. It’s not a health issue, we are not trying to destroy people’s health.

“We are dealing with this as a purely commercial matter. It could mean an increase in business: Northumberland has massively high unemployment, we have a ward here where 60 per cent of children are in poverty. It’s people’s own choice whether they drink or not.”

The BBC last week reported the Labour group’s economic spokeswoman Susan Davey as saying money should be set aside to promote the county as a destination for “booze cruises”.

“Tourism into England has an opportunity to grow second to none. By not setting aside an adequate advertising budget to promote travel and shopping in Northumberland to the Scots, the county may miss out on this golden opportunity.

“Shops in Berwick, Alnwick and Morpeth with easy access to the A1 should be preparing to accept a huge increase in trade but I expect, without an advertising campaign, Carlisle with its easy motorway access will win this race.”

Northumberland County Council itself issued at statement last week saying: “Northumberland County Council is not looking to promote the sale of cheap alcohol or attract people from Scotland to do this.”

And it is organising its own public meeting to debate minimum pricing of alcohol and has invited public health experts, doctors and the police to attend.