Supermarket workers should be trained to recognise code words from domestic abuse victims whose only opportunity to seek help may be during the weekly shop, the Victims Commissioner said.
While the school gates used to be a place where women could speak out, the coronavirus lockdown has reduced opportunities to get support, and some women may only be leaving the home to visit shops or pharmacies.
Victims Commissioner Dame Vera Baird said the Government must adapt by providing a “system of rescue” in the places where victims will frequent during the Covid-19 outbreak.
She told the Home Affairs committee: “Now, the equivalent of course is the supermarket, so you may be a very controlled person but the likelihood is you are sent out to buy the food, and also of course pharmacies.
“We urgently need to copy the French model … which is to have emergency provision available in supermarkets and pharmacies.”
The commissioner said a project called Counting Dead Women has recorded 16 suspected domestic abuse killings in the last three weeks, around five a week, up from the usual average of two.
She mentioned how “Ask for Angela”, an emergency code to protect people from sexual assault, which alerts bar staff to the need for help, could be adapted for use at shop tills.
She said: “You could have a very similar system, easily training local workers in supermarkets, to just respond … if people are able to come in and talk about what’s happening, fine, but maybe that’s not so straightforward and you wouldn’t know what to say to a cashier, so an option to have a codeword so that you say ‘Ask Vera’, and the person says ‘that means this to me’.”
She said the police are looking out for signs of abuse on patrols, and urged the public to sound the alarm if things do not seem right, similar to how they are encouraged to report suspected terrorist issues.
She added: “I hope we can also get the Government really to commit to introducing a system of rescue at the places, the sole places, that people who are in difficulties can go to now, which are largely pharmacies and supermarkets.”
Dame Vera said one member of the British Retail Consortium had proposed a red button system where women ordering groceries online could sound the alarm that they are in danger.
Another option could be to broadcast messages over loudspeaker in parks, such as is already taking place with regard to people only using the areas for exercise.
Dame Vera welcomed Home Secretary Priti Patel’s new domestic violence campaign, and funding for charities, but said it had come “quite late in the day”.
She added: “I think to save lives in this pandemic we are ordering some people to stay locked up for a long time with people who will damage them. And they know that. And that has been staring the Government in the face.”
Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs, also giving evidence, warned society must prepare for the “inevitable surge” of domestic abuse victims seeking support when the lockdown lifts.
She said there were concerns that some of the millions of pounds of Government funding announced for the charity sector may struggle to reach small local charities supporting specific groups.
Simple guidance should be given to everyone who continues to have contact with families about what to look out for and how to report any concerns they may haveAnna Edmundson, NSPCC
Anna Edmundson, head of policy at the NSPCC, said: “Dame Vera Baird is absolutely right that domestic abuse victims need an extra safety net as they struggle behind closed doors.
“This needs to extend to the many children who will be affected by domestic abuse but are at risk of being invisible during the coronavirus crisis.
“As well as encouraging individual victims to reach out for help, we want to see everyone play a role in safeguarding children so the adults and communities around a child can spot any signs of abuse.
“Simple guidance should be given to everyone who continues to have contact with families – including delivery drivers, postal workers and retail staff – about what to look out for and how to report any concerns they may have.”
A Home Office spokesman “The Home Secretary has made protecting those at risk of domestic abuse a priority at this time, and we are taking action together with law enforcement and charities to help victims of these awful crimes.
“We are looking at all options with the police, charities, frontline workers and retailers to support and protect people, but if someone is in danger they should call the police and can disregard orders to stay at home if they need to seek immediate refuge.
“There is also is a wide range of support available for victims – including the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, which is staffed 24 hours a day, every day of the year, by a dedicated team of experts.”