This is a fast-moving issue and should be read as correct at the date of publication (03.04.20).

In an address to the nation on 23 March 2020 the Prime Minister gave the British people what he described as “a very simple instruction”: to stay at home. This instruction has now been backed up by legal regulations.

But what if home is not a safe place? 

This Insight looks at what the new regulations say about staying at home, and how they, alongside coronavirus more generally, could affect people at risk of domestic abuse. 

Domestic abuse in ‘lockdown’

Campaigners and police are worried that ‘lockdown’ will leave those affected by domestic abuse suffering in isolation at a time of stress and uncertainty for many households.

Anecdotal evidence is emerging of increased incidences of domestic abuse linked to coronavirus, both in the UK and globally.

Domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid has warned that perpetrators may use self-isolation and social distancing, “as a tool of coercive and controlling behaviour.”

What does the law say? 

Regulation 6 of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 makes it an offence for a person to leave home without “reasonable excuse”. This offence is punishable by a fine. 

Regulation 6 states that “reasonable excuse” includes: 

  • Leaving the house to access “critical public services.” This includes social services and services provided to those at risk. 
  • Leaving the house to avoid injury or illness or to escape a risk of harm. 

So someone leaving the house to avoid injury, illness or a risk of harm caused by domestic abuse, or to access domestic abuse support services, should have a ‘reasonable excuse’ for doing so.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Home Secretary Priti Patel said that: “whilst our advice is to stay at home, anyone who is at risk of, or experiencing, domestic abuse, is still able to leave and seek refuge.” 

How is the law being enforced? 

The police are responsible for enforcing Regulation 6. Police officers and police community support officers have been issued with operational guidance advising them to: “keep an inquisitive, questioning mind-set,” and to consider whether any safeguarding issues are in play.

The guidance notes that “it may not be safe for everyone to be at home.” In such cases – including domestic abuse – police should not use Regulation 6 but should “revert to normal process and legislation dealing with vulnerable people.” Authorised Professional Practice from the College of Policing sets out the normal process for police to follow in domestic abuse cases. 

In his Better Human podcast on 31 March, human rights barrister Adam Wagner highlighted a possible issue with the enforcement of Regulation 6 in the context of people in abusive relationships. He said that if such people are stopped by the police while out and asked to provide a reasonable excuse, will they feel willing or able to provide details of the abuse in response?

He described this type of interaction as a “reversal of the usual situation” where people choose whether to involve the police in their personal lives.

What impact is coronavirus having on domestic abuse services? 

Women’s Aid has noted that the requirement to self-isolate if you are showing symptoms of Covid-19 is “likely to shut down routes to support and safety.” Self-isolation could impact access to domestic abuse services in a number of ways: 

  • Those affected by domestic abuse, who are self-isolating, will be restricted to online and telephone services. These may be difficult to access from home with the perpetrator present.
  • Accommodation services may not be able to provide self-contained spaces where people can self-isolate, or ensure suitable space for social distancing, which may limit the service they can offer. 
  • Support services may not be able to run and emergency accommodation may have to close if too many staff members need to self-isolate or if suitable social distancing measures cannot be implemented. 

What has the Government said? 

The Government has published detailed guidance to support the management of safe accommodation settings during the pandemic. It says that accommodation settings, “do not need to close unless directed to do so by Public Health England or the Government.” Sites should implement “careful infection control measures,” and maintain safe staff ratios. Residents’ access to shared spaces may need to be limited, and professionals may need to provide support over the phone or online rather than in person.

On 31 March, a group of domestic abuse charities and lawyers wrote to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. They called on him to provide local authorities with dedicated emergency funding to ensure that people escaping domestic abuse can access safe and suitable accommodation. This should include those with no access to public funds, due to their immigration status, for example. 

The letter noted that the Government has made similar funding available to support rough sleepers

What support is still available? 

A range of resources for those seeking support, including those worried they might hurt someone, are available on see Coronavirus (COVID-19): support for victims of domestic abuse.   

Domestic abuse charities Refuge and Women’s Aid have also published safety tips and advice, with a particular focus on online and telephone support. It includes  information on the ‘Silent Solution’ system for calling 999 when you are unable to speak. 

About the author: Sally Lipscombe is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in home affairs.

Photo by Kirsten Drew on Unsplash.