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NHS fear over 24-hour drink plans

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Plans to allow 24-hour drinking can only increase the £1.7bn alcohol-fuelled harm costs the NHS every year, a top medical group has warned.

The Royal College of Physicians said there was already an "epidemic" of binge drinking and the plan "flies in the face of common sense".

But Licensing Minister Richard Caborn said the government was tackling the causes and the symptoms of the problem.

The changes are due next year as part of an overhaul of licensing laws.

It is hoped permitting pubs and clubs to stay open all day will stagger closing times and avoid drinkers spilling onto the streets at the same time.

But the Royal College of Physicians' licensing committee chairman, Professor Ian Gilmore, pointed to warning signs from abroad.

Violence had increased in pubs and bars allowed to open one hour later in Perth, Australia, he told BBC News.

And there was similar data from Iceland, as well as anecdotal evidence from Dublin, Ireland.

Prof Gilmore said the college was not opposed to drinking - but alcohol was now cheaper and more readily available through supermarkets and other outlets.

One out of every four people in Britain were now drinking at potentially hazardous rates.

And the past 30 years had seen a 10-fold rise in cirrhosis rates.

The only way to stem the problem was the politically unpalatable option of raising prices and cutting availability, Prof Gilmore added.

Advocates of the law change, passed in 2003, suggest the UK can mimic the cafe-style culture seen in some European countries.

But Prof Gilmore said: "It is fanciful to think we can turn ourselves into a French-style wine tippling culture merely by abolishing licensing regulations."

His warning comes after the outgoing Metropolitan Police commissioner voiced concerns about the impact of the Licensing Act.

Sir John Stevens said the change of closing hours would take resources away from other areas of policing, as officers will be diverted to covering the streets in the early hours.

"The fact large groups of people will be coming out at 3am or 4am will mean we have to man up the streets to deliver a service to ensure these people behave," he said.

The government says the law change could cut crime.

Mr Caborn said police and local councils would be given greater powers to deal with irresponsible licensees.

"We are working very closely with the trade to make sure their employees do not sell to drunken people, do not sell to young people under age," he added.

There was also a programme to educate both staff and the general public about alcohol abuse, said Mr Caborn.

The plans were being introduced over a three-year period.

And London had enjoyed 36-hour opening times for the Millennium celebrations.

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