The government's newly launched campaign to help domestic abuse victims amid the coronavirus crisis has been fiercely criticised by frontline service providers for failing to tackle the scale of the problem.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, launched a campaign on Saturday to highlight the fact support services are still available to help victims cooped up with their abusive partners during the lockdown.
The campaign comes after visits to the UK’s online national domestic abuse service surged by 700 per cent in a single day in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, and calls rose 120 per cent on the same day.
Ms Patel pledged £2m to boost online support services and helplines for victims – a small proportion of the £48.2m emergency cash injection which Women’s Aid has been campaigning for the government to implement to help services buckling under the strain of the pandemic.
The government’s campaign, which uses the hashtag #YouAreNotAlone, urges people to share a "handprint embossed with a heart" on social media or in the windows of their home with a link to the support on offer for domestic abuse victims. Critics on Twitter have poked fun at the idea for a handprint embossed with a heart.
Frontline service providers in the domestic abuse sector hit out at the government's campaign and argued it failed to help cash-strapped refuges which are already operating on a shoestring due to Conservative Party austerity measures.
Charlotte Kneer, chief executive of Reigate and Banstead Women’s Aid refuge in Surrey, told The Independent: “During this lockdown the scale of abuse happening in homes across the UK is enormous. I strongly caution anyone who thinks a social media campaign with a small amount of funding for the first line of response is anywhere near enough. It doesn’t even come close.
“What really concerns me is that victims may get the telephone answered when they first call but there is no long term strategy here. Specialist services that support and provide safety for victims of domestic abuse are already on their knees after years of funding cuts and are struggling to cope with demand as it is.
"If six out of 10 women on a ‘normal’ day can’t even get a refuge space, what will happen to all the deserving victims coming forward after being imprisoned during weeks of lockdown with their abuser?
“I do not want to be part of a system that fails anyone who has the courage to come forward hoping for help. I want to be part of a system that has capacity and has thought out a proper strategy for helping those that need it.”
Ms Kneer, a domestic abuse survivor whose violent partner was jailed for seven years in 2011, said the rise in reports of domestic abuse amid the coronavirus crisis was “heartbreaking but not surprising”.
Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, also hit out at the government’s campaign and said the additional £2m for online services and helplines is a "drop in the ocean".
She said: “Despite stark advance warnings from other countries, the government’s lack of action on domestic abuse until three weeks into lockdown has already cost lives. If it is not addressed, the escalation of abuse during this period will take a terrible toll that will reverberate in families, communities and our society for years to come.”
Women’s Aid found 84 per cent of services said they had been forced to either reduce or totally cancel one or more services in the wake of the pandemic in a survey of 45 local domestic abuse services. Around 70 per cent of services voiced fears around future loss of income from fundraising.
Local authority spending on refuges for domestic abuse survivors was cut from £31.2m in 2010 to £23.9m in 2017 – meaning several were forced to shut.
Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, the UK’s biggest domestic abuse charity and largest provider of shelters for victims, said: “Last week, following a targeted media push, on Monday 6 April, calls to Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline soared by 120 per cent and visits to our Helpline website rose by a phenomenal 700 per cent compared to the previous day.
“This demonstrates the sheer scale of need for frontline domestic abuse services. What is needed now, more than ever, is to ensure every woman experiencing domestic abuse is aware of the confidential support available. Women are not alone. Refuge stands with you today, tomorrow and in the future.”
Ms Patel has previously drawn attention to the fact domestic abuse victims are permitted to leave home to escape their partners or ask for help despite the government’s social distancing rules.
Charities recently told The Independent they are offering online support to domestic abuse victims forced to isolate with their partners, while frontline service warned a perpetrator’s abuse may be magnified by the turmoil unleashed by the Covid-19 emergency.
Campaigners around the world say domestic abuse has rocketed as social isolation measures have been rolled out. Police in the UK have reported a rise in domestic violence incidents directly linked to coronavirus chaos, while China saw a threefold increase in cases of domestic abuse reported to police stations in February in comparison with the year before.
Anyone who requires help or support can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline which is open 24/7 365 days per year on 0808 2000 247 or via their website https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/