Coronavirus: Domestic abuse an 'epidemic beneath a pandemic'

By June Kelly
Home affairs correspondent, BBC News

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A massive increase in appeals for help over the past year from those suffering domestic abuse has exposed the scale of the problem, say campaigners.

Refuge recorded an average of 13,162 calls and messages to its National Domestic Abuse helpline every month between April 2020 and February 2021.

That is up more than 60% on the average number of monthly contacts at the start of 2020, it says.

One campaigner described it as an epidemic beneath a pandemic.

Between January and March 2020, before the first lockdowns in the UK, the charity recorded an average of 8,176 calls and messages per month.

Between April 2020 and February 2021, it logged a total of more than 131,000 such contacts.

Refuge said 72% of these were from women who said they were experiencing violence and abuse, and nearly a fifth said their abuser had threatened to kill them.

It said many calls were from women who were being terrorised in their own homes, and who were afraid to seek treatment for their injuries in case they overburdened hospital staff.

Some were making plans to flee their homes, while others had no home to go to.

Lisa King, the charity's director of communications and external relations, said "home is not a safe place" for women and children experiencing domestic abuse.

"Lockdown measures, where women have been isolated and confined with their perpetrators, have compounded their exposure to violence and abuse," she added.

Refuge said the largest number of calls and contacts had come from women in their 30s.

Many 16- to 25-year-olds, as well as concerned family, friends and neighbours, reached out via the helpline's Live Chat facility - which enables people to communicate with helpline advisors online and, crucially, in silence.

In 2020, Refuge made nearly 4,500 referrals to refuges across the country, enabling women to flee abusive partners.

In January, when the prime minister announced the latest lockdown, he said that escaping domestic abuse was one of the reasons why people would be allowed to leave home.

When the first lockdown was lifted last year, there was an increase in women seeking emergency accommodation. Refuge is preparing for a repeat when the current lockdown ends.

But it also warns that leaving an abuser can be an extremely dangerous time.

Respect, a charity that runs an advice line for male victims of domestic abuse, says it saw a 70% increase in calls, emails and webchats in 2020 compared to 2019. And during the current lockdown, appeals for help have continued to rise.

The most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in the period from March to June 2020 there was a 7% rise in domestic abuse offences recorded by the police in England and Wales.

The latest police figures show that in the four weeks to the middle of January, covering the first two weeks of the latest lockdown, there was a 4% fall in recorded incidents of domestic abuse.

But the National Police Chiefs' Council said not all such incidents would result in a crime being recorded and hidden abuse was not captured in this data.

Charities have always stressed that many victims do not report to the police.

The Home Office said the government had given more than £27m to domestic abuse organisations to help them deal with the effects of the pandemic.

A spokesperson added: "Our landmark Domestic Abuse Bill will bolster the response to domestic abuse on every level, strengthening protections for victims whilst also ensuring perpetrators feel the full force of the law."

For information and support on domestic abuse, contact:

  • Police: 999 press 55 when prompted if you can't speak
  • Refuge UK-wide 24-hour helpline: 0808 2000 247
  • Welsh Women's Aid Live Fear Free 24-hour helpline: 0808 80 10 800
  • Scotland National Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriages 24-hour helpline: 0800 027 1234
  • Northern Ireland Domestic Abuse 24-hour helpline: 0808 802 1414
  • Men's Advice Line 0808 801 0327

Online webchats and text services are also available.