While we are all acutely aware of the significant impact of COVID-19 on the NHS, social care and wider society and on the future provision of services, it will take many months to quantify and understand the effects in full. The relationships between disrupted and changed services and the impact on people’s health and wellbeing will be complex.
As well as the direct toll on the care sector there are a whole range of additional social consequences – a prolonged lockdown, a period of social distancing, school closures, substantial job losses and financial uncertainty. Problems that already existed in society are likely to have become more pronounced. One troubling consequence is the reported rise of domestic abuse and it is only as we start to emerge that the true scale will be seen.
Since lockdown began on 23 March, reports of domestic abuse surged all over the UK, from the reports in London boroughs that domestic abuse referrals have risen by 60%, to the Scottish islands where requests for refuge accommodation more than doubled.
According to a survey by Women’s Aid, more than two-thirds of survivors currently experiencing abuse say the problem has got worse since COVID-19 has taken grip of the UK, and the charity Refuge has experienced a rise of around 50% in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, while traffic to the helpline’s website has risen by around 300%.
There is no doubt that this is a critical issue. It is reassuring to know a number of local authorities have been responding to this vital need over the last few years by delivering structured and practical programmes of support, and recognise the role they will need to play to support this surge. We have recently been working with a sub-regional partnership in the North West – the Cheshire and Warrington sub-region, to help them with a mid-term review of their work and we have been truly impressed with what we have seen.
In 2018 the Public Sector Transformation Programme (PSTP) was formed in the sub-region. The PSTP followed on from an initial very successful Complex Dependency Programme, a ground-breaking multi-agency approach to tackle issues of complex dependency in children, families and vulnerable adults which commenced in April 2015. The initial programme worked across the Cheshire and Warrington sub-region, and partners were keen to maximise this joint working further and commit to a further three-year programme. The PSTP was formed to expand on the success of this and has a number of key themes, from complex dependency to reduced offending.
One of the flagship projects of the Programme is the Domestic Abuse (DA) Accommodation Project, which aims to offer both a safe place to live and support for complex needs to survivors of domestic abuse. In 2018, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) recognised the value of the work and provided additional resources which has enabled the project to be extended for a further two years. This allowed a pan-Cheshire strategic approach to be adopted to focus on how to improve victims’ experiences.
The work is about making a real and practical difference to peoples’ lives. The first Women’s Centre was established in Crewe by My Cheshire Without Abuse and offers both a range of multi-agency support services and a ‘Peer Support Lounge’ (this was an idea developed by service users themselves). One of the aims of the Women’s Centre model is to reduce isolation for those experiencing a range of complex issues. The centre was so successful that a second was opened in late 2019 in Macclesfield and by December 2019 had already been accessed by 90 women.
A further Women’s Centre was then opened in Warrington and funding has also been secured to develop an offer in West Cheshire and enhance Halton’s existing Women’s Centre which will support an additional 160 users.
It has been a privilege to work with a partnership that is literally saving lives. Given the current context regarding COVID-19, a rise in domestic abuse is likely to be something that will be a pressing concern for the foreseeable future and the provision of help and support will need to be flexible to manage this likely increase, especially so in a period of ever more demanding financial constraints.
John Knight is programme director of C.Co – the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s consultancy service