Coronavirus: 'Domestic abuse pandemic likely due to shutdown'

Rachel Williams
Image caption Rachel Williams was shot by her estranged husband at a hair salon

The coronavirus outbreak will lead to a "domestic abuse pandemic" as vulnerable people spend all day with their abuser during the UK's lockdown, campaigners have warned.

Strict government rules to stay home to stop Covid-19 spreading is "likely" to cause a spike in domestic abuse cases, both survivors and experts claim.

Film star Michael Sheen is fronting an appeal for authorities to have a plan to deal with the "dramatic rise".

The Welsh Government has promised help.

Domestic abuse survivor Rachel Williams, who was shot by her estranged husband Darren as she worked in a hair salon, said vulnerable victims will "feel more isolated than ever".

The 48-year-old, who is now a domestic abuse counsellor and campaigner, said "victims will have no breathing space" as families are forced to spend all day at home together.

"The perpetrators and the victims would normally spend some parts of the day in work or socialising," said the founder of Stand Up To Domestic Abuse organisation.

"That could give the victims breathing space and someone to talk to.

"The children are also not in school which means they don't have a safety net - and in some cases a decent meal.

"Now they're all sharing their surroundings 24/7 with no breathing space. It will be tougher than normal."

Gwent Police chief constable Pam Kelly said she feared victims were "were suffering in silence" after seeing a drop in calls to the force.

Rev Jill-Hailey Harries, chair of Carmarthen Domestic Abuse Services said she was worried abusers would be using the coronavirus lockdown to stop their partners having any freedom.

"Another problem, if somebody is a victim of domestic abuse and they fall ill, we are concerned that the abuser might throw them out of the house, and that's quite a worry," she said.

Nazir Afzal, domestic abuse advisor to Welsh Government, said abuse has already increased elsewhere in the world when countries have been in coronavirus lockdown, saying that pattern will continue in the UK.

"It's as certain as night follows day that if there's a period where people are confined to the same space, then it creates an opportunity for the abuser to abuse," Mr Afzal said.

"There has been a 20% rise of domestic abuse in Northern Ireland, 32% in Paris and 40% in New South Wales - and they are significant increases and there will be no doubt that there will be a rise in Wales.

"We've no official data yet, but anecdotally our care workers are already reporting spikes now."

An estimated 1.6 million women and 786,000 men experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales in the year ending March 2019.

Experts say health worries and fears about income could add to the anxiety and increase the risk of domestic abuse cases.

And with couples confined to their homes, Ms Williams, from Monmouthshire, said: "We know there's a massive influx likely and it will be a pandemic on a pandemic.

"Housing authorities have to open up empty houses to accommodate woman and children and we've got to do the same with hotels and B&Bs - and get a block booking so we're ready to house these, the most vulnerable members of our society."

The Welsh Government said its Live Fear Free helpline will remain open 24/7 and reminded people "if someone is in immediate danger, they should contact 999".

"We're working closely with all lead domestic abuse service providers and charities in Wales to ensure support is available for people at risk, survivors and their families, particularly at this time," said a spokesman.

Wales' biggest police force - and one of the UK's biggest - said it had seen a "worrying slight decline" in domestic abuse calls.

South Wales Police chief constable Matt Jukes said: "We're concerned that there might be increasing pressures in households and I remind if you phone us silently on 999 and press 55, we will pick that up as a cause for concern."

Many communities have helped pick up shopping and prescriptions for the elderly and most vulnerable during the coronavirus restrictions - now Ms Williams wants communities to look out for those who could be experiencing domestic violence.

"If you think your friend or neighbour is being abused, now might be the time they want help," she said.

"If you're doing their shopping as they're in isolation and you suspect they're being abused, pass them a discreet note if it's safe - now we have to be more vigilant than ever of domestic violence."

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