New Zealand, RNZ 6 April 2020

Allowing all alcohol retailers to sell online during the lockdown is doing more harm than good, a health watchdog says.

A rule change late Friday night meant all alcohol stores in New Zealand could now sell online, while some retailers have had to stop delivery services because they could not cope with demand.

But the surge in consumption was worrying, Alcohol Healthwatch executive director Nicki Jackson said.

There is a direct link between the level of alcohol use in our country and the level of accidental and self-inflicted injuries and other alcohol-related conditions that require medical or police assistance.

“We need to take active steps to reduce the availability of alcohol at this time, particularly to protect our mental health.”

It comes as a government u-turn on a decision to crack down on the sale of alcohol took place on Friday night, she said.

At 6.20pm on Friday the list of essential businesses was amended, restricting online sales to online-only businesses.

In effect, this meant that online sales were restricted to around a few hundred online businesses, and prevented hundreds and hundreds of physical bottle shops from selling online, Dr Jackson said.

But later that evening the decision was reversed giving alcohol retailers “almost free rein” to sell their products, she said.

“Closing our physical bottle shops to prevent social contact has simply ended up opening the door to access alcohol from the comfort of your couch. At a time when public health and keeping otherwise healthy people out of hospital is our priority.

Some online alcohol retailers are now waiving their usual delivery fees and requiring minimum purchases of large, harmful bulk quantities of alcohol, she said.

“Alcohol is a discretionary product. It is counterproductive for alcohol to be so widely available online while the health system is under huge stress, even before mass hospitalisations.”

The Ministry of Health said in response to an RNZ request for comment: “We have noted the concerns of Alcohol Healthwatch. The current policy reflects the cross government position.”

A Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment spokesperson said alcohol was always included as an allowable product due to the risk of panic buying as the country transitioned from Alert Level 3 to 4.

Alcohol providers must always adhere to the conditions of their licence and as with all businesses operating under Alert Level 4 they must operate in a way that minimises the risk of Covid-19 spreading, the spokesperson said.

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