A new report into domestic violence during the pandemic has found the number of murders did not rise in lockdown, but warns that police should expect more deaths to follow the end of Covid restrictions.
The study, commissioned by the Home Office, suggested that some abusers have sought to use the pandemic as “a cover-up or excuse” for attacking their partners and even killing them.
Advising police officers to be “alert to ‘Covid-blaming’ as an excuse or justification by perpetrators for domestic abuse or coercive and controlling behaviour”, the report says it has identified a number of cases where perpetrators have tried to claim this.
“This analysis shows how important it is for police, other agencies, the courts, and the public to understand that Covid might be used by perpetrators variously as a weapon of control and as an excuse for abuse or even murder,” researchers added.
“Controlling perpetrators, for whom lockdown has gifted greater control over victims, will lose some of that control as restrictions ease.”
The report, which was co-authored by the national policing Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme, tracked all deaths within a domestic setting in the first year of lockdown and found that “despite the unprecedented circumstances of the last year, domestic homicides do not appear to have increased substantially”.
It warned, however, that police should be “prepared for an increased risk of domestic homicides and potentially suicides of domestic abuse victims as lockdown restrictions lift”.
Risks highlighted include a possible increase in couples attempting to separate during lockdown now being able to, and the re-starting of the night-time economy and major sporting events which are aggravating conditions for domestic abuse. Partners or ex-partners who don’t live together getting increased access to victims after lockdown could also pose a threat.
There was also concern that serial perpetrators may get more opportunity to find new victims, citing evidence homicide rates amongst younger victims and perpetrators were suppressed during the pandemic as schools, colleges and universities were closed.
In some cases, however, researchers believed that re-emerging from lockdown may reduce the risk of homicide and suicide by re-establishing support networks and making cases more visible to agencies.
Deniz Uğur, deputy director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) believed that while the pandemic had created “enabling conditions for domestic abuse”, it has also exacerbated wider inequalities that put many women at heightened risk of violence.
“Black and minoritised women, disabled women and women with insecure immigration status, have been disproportionately affected by Covid, its economic impact and isolation from specialist support services,” Uğur told PoliticsHome.
“Many women with care needs were left reliant on those who abuse them and some women’s organisations reported increased suicidal ideation among the women they support, who were stuck at home with their abusers.
“Crucially, the pandemic is not and will never be an excuse for domestic abuse nor the inequalities that underpin male violence against women and girls.”
Farah Nazeer, chief executive of Women’s Aid, also noted the ongoing risk of violence once restrictions have eased.
“Covid-19 did not cause these deaths,” Nazeer said. “Abusers cause domestic abuse, and we know that the lockdown restrictions were a gift to abusers – they enabled them to find new ways to exert power and control, and increased their ability to isolate women and children.”
Nazeer urged government to provide a significant increase to support for women at risk of violence.
“Specialist women’s domestic abuse services have worked around the clock during the pandemic to keep their doors open and keep women safe – but face continued funding uncertainty, severe demand and issues with staff burnout and wellbeing,” she added.
Victoria Atkins, the Home Office minister for safeguarding, said: “Tackling domestic abuse is a key priority for the government and I am committed to doing everything we can to tackle this abhorrent crime, to ensure victims have the protection they rightly need, and that perpetrators of these crimes are brought to justice.
“We have made huge progress in recent years and I am especially proud of our landmark Domestic Abuse Act which transforms our response to tackling domestic abuse by providing greater protection to victims and survivors from all forms of abuse.”
The government is due to publish its strategy on Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls, and the new Domestic Abuse Strategy, in the coming months.
Atkins thanked those who contributed to the report, and added: “Finally, it is important that we learn lessons from these losses to drive change and prevent further domestic homicides.”
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