Domestic abuse has risen since the UK imposed a national lockdown to curb the spread of Covid last spring - a report released by MPs revealed domestic abuse killings in the first 21 days of the first lockdown were double the total of an average period in the past decade.
The new scheme, which is being rolled out across independent pharmacies and Boots stores from Thursday, allows victims who may be trapped at home with their abusive partners to discreetly gesture they are in need of help.
If a victim asks for ANI (which stands for action needed immediately), a trained pharmacy worker will offer them to go into a private space where they can support them to either contact domestic abuse services or the police.
Mark Lyonette, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association, said: “Community pharmacies are about people, not just pills. There is a clear and urgent need to support victims of abuse and we want to play our part.
“The Ask for ANI alert mechanism is a discreet and sensitive way to help support some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”
The project, which was the brainchild of domestic violence survivors, will see thousands of pharmacies around the UK take part.
Nicole Jacobs, Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales, said: “It is dangerous to be confined with an abuser and it can be extremely difficult to seek help when you are with a perpetrator almost 24 hours a day - as many victims are under the current lockdown conditions.
“I welcome the Ask for ANI scheme which gives victims another chance to access safe spaces and to get help in pharmacies by using a code word. This is exactly the kind of activity I would like to see more of: the whole community stepping up to play a role in responding to domestic abuse, which is truly ‘everyone’s business’.”
A four-week national advertising campaign to make sure domestic abuse victims know how they can access support will be run in conjunction with the scheme. While promotional material will be shown in stores so victims know they can seek help at that particular pharmacy.
Dame Vera Baird, Victims Commissioner for England and Wales, said: “Home is not a safe place for people experiencing domestic abuse, and this is especially true under strict lockdown conditions. So, it is incredibly important that victims and survivors know there are safe spaces and lifelines within their own communities.”
She said she hoped risks had been effectively safeguarded and mitigated against - adding it takes “immense courage and strength” for victims to ask for support so the government and pharmacies must provide long-term “robust and quality training”.
Dame Baird added: “This also requires commitment from the police to ensure referrals are handled with appropriate urgency to ensure victims are safe and have the confidence to report.”
It comes after Johanna Beresford, who has been involved in training programmes to help staff at Tesco and Boots identify domestic abuse victims cooped up at home with their abusive partners during the coronavirus crisis, previously told The Independent they are hoping to “demystify myths” of domestic abuse for those having contact with the public.
She said: “We are providing people with information from previous scenarios so they can spot signs, know things to say and how to point someone in the right direction. One thing to look for is whether someone is going in very regularly to a store and only buying one or two items once or twice a day”.
Staff are also being shown how to identify physical signs of abuse such as noticing if “someone is dressed in a way that doesn’t mirror the weather, like wearing jumpers when it’s hot as maybe they are hiding bruises”, Ms Beresford said.
“If they seem very withdrawn or anxious as they are walking around the supermarket or pharmacy, or won’t look at you look when you serve them as they’re too nervous – these could also be signs of domestic abuse.”
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