May 30, 2019

Anthony Grabs: Relaxing lockout laws will lead to more violence – Daily Telegraph

Five years ago, on any Friday or Saturday night, St Vincent’s Hospital’s Emergency Department would be awash with the victims of alcohol-related harm, the hospital’s director of trauma, Anthony Grabs, writes. He is surprised the NSW government feels the need to once again review the measures.

It might be easy for some people to put aside what Kings Cross and the CBD were like five years ago before Sydney’s last drinks measures were introduced.

For myself and my colleagues, it’s impossible to forget.

Five years ago, on any Friday or Saturday night, St Vincent’s Hospital’s Emergency Department would be awash with the victims of alcohol-related harm.

It was honestly something akin to a war zone.

Victims of alcohol-related bashings and accidents would fill the entire unit.

The tragic deaths of Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie were the most high-profile cases of alcohol-related violence, but there were many others: shocking brain injuries, lives ruined, families torn apart.

I remember the grief-stricken parents of victims of alcohol-related assaults sitting inconsolably in the waiting room, devastated at the injuries to their son or daughter, and how their life would now be irreversibly changed.

This is what I witnessed as head of trauma at St Vincent’s. It’s imprinted on my memory.

And I know it’s the same for many other emergency workers and first ­responders — police and ambulance officers — and they don’t want those bad days to return.

The last drinks reforms — commonly known as the “lockout laws” — changed that. At the hospital, their impact was felt almost overnight.

For example, serious facial trauma admissions at the hospital dropped by over 60 per cent.

And St Vincent’s has not seen a ­single death involving alcohol-related violence since then.

There’s also been little or no displacement of alcohol-related violence to other areas outside the lockout law precinct.

And when I speak to my peers at neighbouring hospitals, it seems that there has been no increase in presentations or admissions related to alcohol either.

In the months after their introduction, on Friday and Saturday nights, colleagues and I would frequently check our mobile phones to see if their silence meant they were broken, such was the enormous contrast to the previous years when the constant ringing would announce the arrival of a new patient who needed our care because of alcohol-related harms.

It’s surprising to me that the NSW government feels the need to once again review the measures so soon after they were last examined in September 2016 by Justice Ian Callinan.

The independent Callinan Report found the measures had delivered a reduction in violence in the city’s entertainment precincts and no significant displacement of violence elsewhere.

Our politicians must think very carefully before they remove or relax these laws.

The evidence is irrefutable: the longer you extend alcohol trading hours and the more accessible you make alcohol — be it at bottle shops, bars, pubs or clubs — the more you increase the number of alcohol-related assaults and other injuries.

We’ve always said these were a package of measures designed to work together. Our concern is that if you water down one area, then it will make the overall package less effective.

St Vincent’s takes its responsibility as a member of its community seriously. We support a vibrant entertainment district in Sydney’s CBD and Kings Cross but, as Justice Callinan found, “vibrancy is not to be measured only by the amount of alcohol available or consumed throughout the night”.

While we’re disappointed at the prospect of these measures being relaxed, St Vincent’s will present our ­evidence and experiences to the members of the joint select parliamentary committee.

I hope the committee members ­approach the issue without a predetermined outcome in mind and make a decision that is based on what is right for the health and welfare of Sydneysiders.

* Associate Professor Anthony Grabs is Director of Trauma at St Vincent’s Hospital.