Domestic abuse: the danger indoors

22 May 2020

Journalist Juliette Astrup explores the worrying surge in domestic abuse during the Covid-19 lockdown and what is being done to address it.

Domestic abuse helplines across the UK have reported a surge in calls since measures to tackle the spread of Covid-19 put the nation into lockdown in late March.

Just under a quarter of services helping domestic violence victims reported an increase in their caseload at the start of the UK’s coronavirus epidemic due to more clients and fewer staff (SafeLives, 2020).

Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, reported a 25% rise in calls to its helpline*, while hits to its website* increased by 150% during the initial stages of the lockdown (Refuge, 2020a). The resulting press coverage then saw calls rocket even higher, rising by a staggering 120% overnight, while website hits went up 700% compared with the previous day (Refuge, 2020b; 2020c).

Lockdown fear

Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of Refuge, says: ‘We hope that women seeing our public communications will feel reassured and supported and recognise that what they are experiencing iås against the law and not acceptable.’

Similarly, the Respect helpline for perpetrators of domestic abuse seeking help to change their behaviour has also had a surge in the number of calls – up by 67% since the beginning of Covid-19, the Respect CEO told the BBC’s Woman’s hour.

This trend is particularly worrying, following as it does on the heels of the figures released by the NSPCC at the beginning of March, which showed that calls to its helpline to raise concerns about children living in homes with domestic abuse had risen by 25% in a year between 2018 and 2019 (Petter, 2020).

And the headlines have kept coming. In mid-April, Crimestoppers used its social media platforms to reveal a 49% surge in information it passed on to law enforcement about domestic abuse nationally since the pandemic lockdown (Crimestoppers, 2020a).

The first three weeks of lockdown also saw at least 16 domestic abuse killings in the UK– 14 women and two children – compared with an average of five killings over that same period across the previous 10 years (Ingala Smith, 2020).

This shocking statistic, collated from internet searches and people contacting over social media, was raised by Dame Vera Baird QC, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, during evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on April 15.

‘If children are at home, that can mean exposure to that  cocktail of risks – lack of food, domestic violence and substance abuse’

Karen Ingala Smith, the founder of the Counting Dead Women blog, calls the finding ‘a window into the levels of abuse that women live with all the time’.

She is not alone in pointing out that the lockdown in itself isn’t a cause of violence. Nicki Norman, acting chief executive of Women’s Aid, says: ‘Covid-19 will not cause domestic homicides – only abusers are responsible for their actions. The pandemic does, however, threaten to escalate abuse and close down routes to safety for women to escape.’

Cut off from care

Of course, women are not the only victims of domestic abuse – and the lockdown will also have exacerbated the trauma for children both experiencing and witnessing abuse.

Lisa Johnson, manager of Women’s Aid Direct Services, says: ‘Women and children will be incarcerated at home with the abuser. Women may lose financial independence if they are no longer working. In addition, it will be harder for them to reach out to colleagues or friends and family. Children will no longer have the respite of school or nursery, which are also places where they can safely access support. Women may feel that their experience is not a priority for stretched public and voluntary services and be reluctant to seek the support that is still available.’

There is real concern that vulnerable children are becoming even more invisible. The Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) has rung alarm bells over an observed drop in referrals about children who may have experienced harm to the police and children’s social services during the first three weeks of lockdown.

Bernie McNally, independent chair of the SBNI, spoke out to remind the public that the main statutory agencies are still open and ‘if there are worries for a child, please contact children’s social services or police immediately’. While schools are remaining open for vulnerable children, many fewer than expected are actually turning up – with anecdotal reports in the press suggesting that instead of the anticipated 20% of pupils, just 2% have kept coming to school.

Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England, points out: ‘If they’re not showing up, that means they’re most likely at home, which can mean exposure to that cocktail of secondary risks – lack of food in the house, cramped living conditions or neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse and parental mental health problems.’

She says such an emergency demands ‘new and agile approaches from every one of us’ and has called for ‘an army of volunteers’ to support helps social services and schools ‘reach to children and families, check in on what is going on, support struggling families and make these invisible children visible again’ (Longfield, 2020).

Third-sector challenges

Another challenge is the mounting pressure on charities and those organisations that work to support domestic abuse victims. An audit of 119 of these groups by SafeLives in the earliest days of lockdown found that three-quarters of respondents had reduced service delivery due to Covid-19, with almost a third reporting a decrease in staff. More than one in five services said they were not able to effectively support adult victims of abuse at the moment, while 42% reported being unable to effectively support child victims (SafeLives, 2020).

This crisis could not have come at a worst time with the domestic abuse support sector ‘already facing an urgent funding crisis’ adds Lisa Johnson of Women’s Aid: ‘Local services desperately need funding to cope with both additional demand and the challenges of delivering services remotely, managing isolation within refuges, and having staff ill and in self-isolation.’

Government action

However, such is the level of concern now that governments have begun ramping up their responses. The Home Office announced an extra £2m for domestic abuse services and launched a new public awareness campaign in recent weeks. The cash injection, which is in addition to the £750m package of support for charities previously announced, will ‘immediately bolster’ helplines and online support platforms.

Adverts raising awareness of where people can seek help are now running across social media, and materials have been made available via charities and supermarkets.

The message to those experiencing domestic abuse is #YouAreNotAlone and that help is still available. The public has been encouraged to get behind the message by sharing a photo of a heart on their palm in their windows across social media. This shows ‘that we will not tolerate abuse as a society, and that we stand in solidarity with victims of domestic abuse,’ explains home secretary Priti Patel.

In Scotland, the government has made grants amounting to more than £1.5m from its Communities Fund to Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland to ensure that access to key support services is maintained. Here, justice secretary Humza Yousaf has been clear that ‘the message to stay at home does not mean that [women] should not seek urgent help, advice or support’ (Scottish Government, 2020a).

At a local level too, action is being taken. For example, the police and crime commissioner in Bedfordshire has set up a £60,000 fund to provide emergency shelter for those fleeing domestic violence during the pandemic (Bedfordshire PCC, 2020).

Help abuse survivors  

  • If you are having contact over the phone with survivors during the pandemic, always presume the perpetrator is present and that you could be on loudspeaker  
  • Listen out for your neighbours and call 999 if you think someone is at risk  
  • If safe to do so, reach out to anyone you believe is in an abusive relationship and encourage them to seek advice and support, particularly around safety planning during these times  
  • If it is not safe for the survivors themselves to get help, support friends, family and any professional so they can safely pass information on  
  • Encourage survivors to try and keep a mobile phone with them, and charged at all times if possible  
  • Tell them about specialist domestic abuse services so, when they are able, they can seek support.

Crimestoppers, 2020b

What can you do?

The fact remains that social distancing restrictions present real challenges to services working with families on the ground. As many services such as GPs and children’s centres move to virtual consultations or remote provision and end non-essential checks, opportunities for professionals to identify domestic abuse are dwindling. Pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby can trigger domestic abuse but how will mothers be able to safely disclose it?

This lack of face-to-face contact cannot be easily overcome, especially with the current additional demands on the workforce. However, the importance placed on community practitioners’ safeguarding role has not been diminished. The Community Services Prioritisation Plan (NHS England, 2020) and other Covid-19 guidance all indicate that safeguarding children and adults is still critical, even as they specify that health visitor contacts must be done remotely whenever possible. In Scotland, for example, the guidance underlines that ‘it is essential that all health staff continue to discharge their duties in respect of public protection’ and continue to ‘remain vigilant in their responses to public protection and safety’ (Scottish Government, 2020b).

Identifying and signposting during this period will be crucial – Public Health England chief nurse Viv Bennett took to Twitter to thank HVs, family nurses and school nurses for ‘supporting children, young people and families in distress difficulty and risk’ and urged them to ‘please help us ensure people know there is help available’, including in her post a link to Refuge’s domestic abuse helpline webpage (Bennett, 2020).

‘Stay in touch’ is the key message to practitioners from the charity Women’s Aid. Lisa Johnson says: ‘Consistency and continuity are more important now than ever to help break the social isolation faced by women and children. Before starting a conversation, check where the partner and/or children are. This will give you both important boundaries around the conversation. Ask whether the survivor feels safe to have a conversation and be led by their priorities.    

The message to those experiencing domestic abuse is #youarenotalone and that help is still available

‘Resource yourself as a practitioner. For instance, make sure you know about the opening hours of local domestic abuse specialist services, what housing options exist in your area, who is offering online emotional support, and research specialist services such as Surviving Economic Abuse, which has information on the economic impact of benefit changes and furlough.’

Stay safe, stay at home?

The rise in domestic abuse is an emergency that must not be lost within the wider crisis. For those living in a place of violence, fear or threat, the instruction to ‘stay safe, stay at home’ is a tragic contradiction. Perhaps the most important message they can hear is that they don’t have to do that. Despite the lockdown, anyone who is at risk of, or experiencing, domestic abuse, is still able to leave and seek refuge, and they will still get the support they so desperately need.



Bedfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner (2020). PCC sets up 60k fund to provide emergency shelter for those fleeing domestic violence during the pandemic. See:  (accessed 22 April 2020).

Bennett V. (2020) Thank you 3 [Tweet]. See: (accessed 22 April 2020).

Crimestoppers. (2020a) We’ve seen a 49% surge in information… [Tweet]. See: CrimestoppersUK/status/1251138956420280325 (accessed 22 April 2020).

Crimestoppers. (2020b) Be kind and stay safe. See: (accessed 22 April 2020).

Home Office. (2020) Home Secretary announces support for domestic abuse victims. See: (accessed 24 April 2020).

Ingala Smith K. (2020) Coronavirus doesn’t cause men’s violence against women. See:  (accessed 22 April 2020).

Longfield A. (2020) We need an army of volunteers for vulnerable children. See: (accessed 22 April 2020).

NHS England. (2020) COVID-19 prioritisation within community health services. See: (accessed 22 April 2020).

Petter O. (2020) Number of children living with domestic abuse up by 25 per cent says NSPCC. The Independent. See:  (accessed 22 April 2020).

Refuge. (2020a) 25% increase in calls to National Domestic Abuse Helpline since lockdown measures began. See:  (accessed 22 April 2020).

Refuge. (2020b) Refuge, the UKs largest domestic abuse charity, sees calls and contacts to its National Domestic Abuse Helpline rise by 120% overnight. See: (accessed 19 April 2020).

Refuge. (2020c) Refuge sees online traffic to its National Domestic Abuse Helpline website rise by 700%. See:

SafeLives. (2020) Domestic abuse frontline service COVID-19 survey results. See: (accessed 22 April 2020).

Scottish Government. (2020a) Support for victims of domestic violence during COVID-19 outbreak. See: (accessed 19 April 2020).

Scottish Government. (2020b) National clinical guidance for nursing and AHP community health staff during COVID-19 pandemic. See: (accessed 24 April 2020).