Women usually get the boot first when diversity drives begin. Credit: Samuel de Roman/Getty Images

March 27, 2020   4 mins

Go home! Stay home! Don’t go out unless you have to! It is sound and welcome advice for most people in a global pandemic. But there’s one group in whom it will have inspired nothing but despair — all those at risk of domestic violence.

Why do 999 calls shoot up at Christmas and in the summer holidays? Because abusive partners find themselves at home with their families for a few days. Imagine, then, what’s going to happen when these angry, frustrated and violent men are shut up inside for weeks on end because of the coronavirus. The nation’s pubs are closed and there isn’t even any live sport to distract them.

According to the ONS, an estimated 1.6 million women suffer domestic abuse in England and Wales in a normal year. (Men are at risk, too, but the statistics show that women suffer more repeat incidents and more severe injuries.) With the lockdown, all those women will have even fewer opportunities to ring for help or go online for advice. In some places, they can’t even escape to the park to make a discreet phone call for help or support, because they have been shut. Thanks Hammersmith and Fulham. But this council isn’t alone in its short-sightedness. Very little has been done to address the problem. In fact, it has barely even been acknowledged by Government.

It’s as though our ministers live in a rose-tinted world where home is the safest place to be, oblivious to the mass of statistics that tell a different story. We know that domestic abuse — the type that gets reported to the police, at any rate — is linked to deprivation, insecure employment and over-crowded housing. And those in the least secure jobs, the cab drivers and construction workers who are mostly self-employed, are the immediate losers amid the pandemic. They’ve had to wait 10 days longer than employees to find out what the Chancellor proposes to do for them. Frustrations and tensions will have been ratcheting up.

We also know that anxious, depressed men are likely to turn to drink, with a quarter of victims of domestic violence reporting that their abusers were using drugs or alcohol at the time of an attack. During lockdown, a spike in alcohol abuse is inevitable — and people are already drinking more. Off-licences are being allowed to remain open, following reports that some supermarkets can’t cope with increased demand for beer, wine and spirits.

It’s not as though we don’t know what to expect. In China, a police station in the worst-affected province received three times as many reports of domestic abuse in February, compared with the same period last year. Some governments, notably those of Germany and Spain, have acknowledged the probable impact of coronavirus lockdowns. The German family ministry has posted emergency phone numbers for anyone experiencing ‘conflicts arising at home’, offering counselling to teenagers, pregnant women and victims of domestic abuse. In Spain, the government has set up an instant messaging service and an online chatroom to provide immediate support to victims. Such measures are welcome, even if they fall short of providing desperately-needed emergency accommodation.

When Boris Johnson was asked about the risk of a surge in domestic violence a couple of weeks ago, he replied with his usual combination of bluster and bragging, insisting that he had just put “record funding” back into councils even though the money wasn’t earmarked for — and is unlikely to be allocated to — services for victims of abuse. But the truth is that organisations trying to help women escape violent relationships were in dire straits before the coronavirus sent the country into quarantine. It was already the case that two-thirds of women in need of a refuge place were being turned away, forcing them to move in with relatives, risk becoming homeless or stay with a man who had beaten and raped them.

Some of these women may now end up being killed in their own homes. Domestic homicides were already at a five-year high before the epidemic broke out. The latest Femicide Census makes sombre reading, listing 149 killings and demonstrating once again that that women are most likely to be killed by a current or ex-partner; in cases where perpetrator and victim were known to each other, more than half of the deaths occurred in households with a history of domestic abuse.

Perhaps Boris Johnson’s masculine War Cabinet should flick through it. The statistic that should really worry them is the fact that 68% of such killings took place in or immediately around the family home – the very place where they’ve told women to isolate.

In Greater Manchester, there have already been reports of abuse linked to the lockdown, according to Beverley Hughes, deputy mayor for policing and crime. Avon and Somerset police, too, reported a 20.9% increase in domestic abuse incidents in the last two weeks, from 718 to 868. And Police in Cumbria have asked postal workers and delivery drivers to look out for signs of abuse.

But thus far, despite an array of individuals and organisations — including Women’s Aid and the recently-appointed Domestic Violence Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs — pleading for some sort of Government provision, little seems to have been done.  The only concession the Government has openly made is to exempt those fleeing a violent relationship from lockdown enforcement fines.

But there’s absolutely no mystery about what the ministers could and should do. They urgently need to provide extra financial support for victims’ organisations to help cope with increased demand; they should instruct the police to check on households with a known history of domestic abuse; they should use domestic violence protection orders (DVPOs) to get the worst abusers out of their homes; and they should use empty hotels to provide emergency accommodations for women and children. They should also do everything within their power to promote the services that are already available for these vulnerable women.

As the scale of the pandemic was starting to become apparent, the Prime Minister boasted in the House of Commons that his Government has an “outstanding record in tackling violence against women and girls”. It was a dubious claim before coronavirus changed the landscape of the UK, emptying the streets and sequestering the population behind closed doors. It looks even more suspect now as thousands of vulnerable women look forward to the next few weeks not just with the anxiety we all feel during a global pandemic, but outright terror.

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.