Coronavirus: domestic abuse

Published 01/05/2020   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

‘Stay home’ isn’t an easy instruction for people whose home isn’t a safe place to be. Being forced to isolate with a perpetrator can limit opportunities for people living with abuse to escape or access services.

The UK appears to be following a global trend of rising domestic abuse during lockdown. It’s estimated that there were at least 16 domestic abuse-related killings of women and children in the UK between 23 March and 12 April.

Calls to domestic abuse helplines have surged, with some reporting a 700% increase in a single day.

The Welsh Government says that “domestic abuse services in Wales are ready to help” people at risk. But Welsh Women’s Aid has raised serious concerns about the lack of ringfenced emergency funding to meet demand for services during the pandemic.

This post provides an overview of the evidence of increases in abuse, the response by the Welsh Government, and the reaction from the sector.

Our previous articles on the emerging equality issues and human rights implications of the pandemic also address this issue. Our annual gender equality indicators for Wales show that women are far more likely to be killed by partners and relatives, and are more likely than men to experience domestic abuse.

Demand for some services is rising

Official data on domestic abuse during coronavirus from the police and crime surveys are not yet available, but many service providers have reported increases in demand.

However, the Welsh Government Deputy Minister Jane Hutt wrote on 29 April that calls to the Live Fear Free helpline and online requests for help in Wales had actually fallen compared with the same period last year. She notes that this is “worrying, because it means that victims have no safe way to call for help with their abusers monitoring their every move”.

Statistics provided to the Research Service by Welsh Women’s Aid show that there were 601 contacts (calls, webchat, texts and emails) to the Live Fear Free helpline last week, up from 463 the previous week.

The UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on domestic abuse and coronavirus on 27 April. It found:

  • there has been increases in demand for some phone-based and online advice and support services, but ‘worrying’ drops in people accessing in-person services;
  • there is an urgent need for additional funding to support services to address increased needs;
  • cases are escalating more quickly to become complex and serious, with higher levels of physical violence and coercive control;
  • domestic abuse-related suicide is a ‘profound concern’;
  • the lockdown has increased barriers to reporting abuse, and there are fewer interactions with people who can identify abuse like GPs, drop-in sessions, teachers and workplaces;
  • social distancing and staff shortages have reduced refuge capacity;
  • the UK Government’s efforts to raise awareness of domestic abuse and how to get help have been welcomed;
  • the Home Office has a ‘blind spot’ about the 1 in 5 children who have experience of domestic abuse;
  • BAME and migrant women may have additional difficulties leaving abusive situations ‘because of close-knit family and communities and because of language difficulties’, and
  • victims with insecure immigration status and no recourse to public funds (NRPF) are particularly vulnerable.

The Committee called for a national strategy to coordinate efforts of the sector, local services and government during the pandemic.

It recommends the UK Government provide an emergency, ringfenced funding package for domestic abuse services within its £750 million fund for charities.

It also recommended that a scheme be initiated to allow people to contact support services through supermarkets and other shops.

The Committee recommended that local authorities help identify abuse by visiting families and households where there have been domestic abuse incidents, or where there are vulnerable children. The recommendations also include increasing the availability of refuge and move-on accommodation, and children’s services.

The Welsh Government’s response has been criticised by the sector

Welsh Women’s Aid (WWA), the umbrella membership organisation for services in Wales, has raised concerns that “at least 90% of services” are incurring additional costs due to the pandemic.

On 16 April the Deputy Minister Jane Hutt AM stated:

“Last week, I announced £1.2 million to fund community accommodation for victims of domestic abuse, as well as an additional £200,000 for furnishings, computer equipment and white goods, while our annual VAWDASV [violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence] capital fund will prioritise projects to support the current crisis.

[..] We will be re-running our ‘Don’t be a Bystander’ campaign, and want to work with the police, pharmacies and supermarkets to share our “Don’t be a Bystander” message together with information about access to help and support.

We have also opened up our VAWDASV e-learning module for all, to help people spot the signs of domestic abuse, and to know how to get help for friends or neighbours.”

But in a letter to the Deputy Minister, WWA highlights that the £1.2 million was originally announced in December 2019, and the £200,000 is a 2019/20 capital underspend “which had already been promised last quarter”.

It goes on to say:

These announced funds are not in direct response to the unprecedented measures that have been taken due to the circumstances caused by COVID-19 as the Deputy Minister’s wording would suggest.

[…] This suggests the Government has no intention to fund the additional costs [being incurred by services]. It also gives the impression that the Government is investing to meet the needs of survivors at this time, possibly blocking VAWDASV specialist services from other funding streams as they are seen to be covered. This is not only inaccurate but could also be dangerous.

The letter also notes that the Welsh Government has said “some of this additional funding due to go out to tender in one region ‘may now be delayed due to COVID-19’”.

The Welsh Government has provided £24 million of additional funding for the third sector (which we have summarised), but WWA notes that service providers “are having to spend considerable time filling out multiple applications and bids from generic pots, at a time when they need to focus on the immediate needs of survivors accessing their services”.

WWA contrasts the situation to the £10 million of Welsh Government funding to support people experiencing homelessness. WWA says that, while welcomed, the funding has a focus on rough sleeping, whereas “women’s homelessness is often hidden and linked to or resulting in abuse and exploitation”.

WWA called for “swift access to funding”, as in Scotland where it notes that “money was provided with immediate effect [..] recognising that services have to be responsive to changing needs and do not have capacity to fill in endless application forms”.

On 31 March the Scottish Government provided an additional £1.4 million of funding to Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland to “ensure that access to these key support services is maintained”

WWA is calling for the Welsh Government to provide additional, ringfenced funding for the violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence sector in Wales to cover:

  • losses in housing benefit revenue for refuges;
  • alternative accommodation if refuges are full;
  • personal protective equipment (PPE);
  • increased staffing costs;
  • funding for children’s workers in refuges and other settings during school closures;
  • new digital technology;
  • BAME specialist services to help provide spaces for religious and cultural practices, and
  • meeting increasing complexity of needs.

On 29 April the Deputy Minister wrote that:

I am working with specialist domestic abuse services to make sure help is available for anyone who needs it, and to make sure there is a safe place for victims and survivors to stay.

The Welsh Government has also issued coronavirus guidance for providers of accommodation for survivors which states:

“Welsh Government has provided advice to all Local Authorities to utilise alternative powers and funding to assist those who require shelter and other forms of support due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This means that temporary shelter should be made available for those fleeing domestic abuse but have no recourse to public funds. Refuge providers should discuss such cases with their local authorities’ housing teams.”

It also published guidance for services for perpetrators, which states:

“If it is considered necessary to spend funding in alternative ways, services should speak to funders at the earliest opportunity in order to seek formal agreement. Where additional funding is needed, services should make a clear case for this. It is not guaranteed that any additional funding will be available.”

International good practice can be applied locally

The UN recommends that governments should:

  • integrate prevention efforts and services to respond to violence against women into COVID-19 response plans;
  • designate domestic violence shelters as essential services and increase resources to them, and to civil society groups on the front line of response;
  • expand the capacity of shelters for victims of violence by re-purposing other spaces, such as empty hotels, or education institutions, to accommodate quarantine needs, while integrating considerations of accessibility for all;
  • designate safe spaces for women where they can report abuse without alerting perpetrators, e.g. in grocery stores or pharmacies;
  • move services online, and
  • step up advocacy and awareness campaigns, including targeting men at home.

The WHO also states:

“governments need to recognise the greater public health risk of women and girls to violence [..] The health sector, despite being stretched, can take some steps to mitigate the harms caused by violence, including providing psychological [..] support and facilitating access to other support services”.

It is legal to leave home during lockdown to escape abuse or get help

The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (Wales) Regulations 2020 makes it an offence for a person to leave home without ‘reasonable excuse’.

But it is clear that a ‘reasonable excuse’ includes leaving the house to avoid injury, illness or a risk of harm, or to access domestic abuse support services.

The Live Fear Free helpline can provide help and advice to:

  • anyone experiencing domestic abuse;
  • anyone who knows someone who needs help; and
  • practitioners seeking professional advice.

All conversations are confidential and are taken by staff that are highly experienced and fully trained. The helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week:

Article by Hannah Johnson, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales

We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.

You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.