Calls to the UK’s largest domestic abuse helpline are rising “week on week” as new figures reveal that almost 50 suspected killings may have occurred during the first lockdown.
The charity Refuge, which runs the National Domestic Abuse helpline, said it was “very concerned” by the continuing upward trend in demand for its services, with England a little over a week into its second lockdown.
Separate data from Counting Dead Women, a project that records the killing of women by men in the UK, identified 35 murders, with another 12 strongly suspected cases between 23 March and the start of July, when Covid restrictions were largely lifted.
The rate of killings, conspicuously steep in the opening period of the first lockdown, gradually lowers to levels similar to those recorded in previous years.
Current calls to and contacts with the National Domestic Abuse helpline, though rising sharply, have not yet reached the levels witnessed during the first lockdown. Then, more than 40,000 calls were made during the first three months of the Covid-19 restrictions.
One notable aspect of the coronavirus restrictions was the use of technology to intimidate and control partners. Refuge said perpetrators were increasingly using smart locks, webcams and social media, or sharing revenge porn, to harass their targets, and that it had investigated 195 cases of “tech abuse” in the first lockdown.
As a way of learning from the experiences of survivors and frontline services during the first lockdown, Refuge will this week publish a dossier based on 25 interviews about what needs to change to prevent the same things happening again. Among the findings is a need for more safe homes, with some councils only rehousing the street homeless during the first lockdown.
Similarly, there are calls for better mental health provision, with the report detailing how one service manager “supported four women who attempted to take their own lives during lockdown”. It also found that all the survivors interviewed were reliant on universal credit, and had experienced delays in payments and difficulties in making a claim. One survivor waited for nine weeks to receive her first payment after her application was made.
Lisa King, director of communications and external affairs at Refuge, said: “The experiences faced by women during the first set of lockdown restrictions should serve as a wake-up call as we continue through the next stage of lockdown and Covid-19 response.
“What we know is that demand for our services rose significantly earlier this year – and early signs show that that could well be repeated.”
Karen Ingala-Smith, who compiled the Counting Dead Women figures from internet searches and social media contacts, said lockdown should not be used to excuse perpetrators. She said: “It doesn’t make abusive men out of non-abusive men. It just increases the triggers that abusive men use to justify their violence.”
Her tally reveals that during the first week of lockdown 10 women were killed, far higher than the average rate for March. In the following month, another eight women were identified as having been murdered, with another three suspected case.
Another theme to emerge from the Refuge audit was how perpetrators are adept at using coronavirus restrictions to abuse and intimidate.
One survivor, Sarah – not her real name – described her ordeal. Shortly before the pandemic she left her controlling partner and was embroiled in a legal battle over access to their son. During lockdown he would frequently appear at her door. “He would turn up unannounced and conflict would follow. I had nowhere to go, I was scared in my own home, scared to leave my own home,” she said.
With police taking up to 25 minutes to reach her, Sarah eventually installed the Hollie Guard app on her phone, which immediately alerts chosen contacts when the phone is shaken. Later she contacted Refuge for a web chat that she said provided advice and support to deal with the situation.