Women who have experienced domestic abuse and sexual assault are being urged to contact the NHS for support, as the number of people seeking help halved during the first lockdown.
Following the death of Sarah Everard and the outpouring from women sharing their experiences of assault and harassment, both in the home and in public, the NHS is calling for anyone who needs assistance to come forward.
Senior NHS leaders have also written out reminding staff how to spot signs a patient may have experienced abuse or assault and what support is available.
The move comes after the number of people receiving help from NHS Sexual Assault Referral clinics (SARCs) halved after the first lockdown compared with the previous year despite official figures showing that domestic abuse and sexual assault increased.
The specialist clinics offer people who have been raped or assaulted a range of help including medical examinations, emergency contraception, emotional support and pregnancy testing.
The clinics are run by specially trained NHS doctors, nurses and support workers who can provide the appropriate care for victims.
Patients do not need to report a crime to the police to refer themselves to a SARC for assessment, medical treatment and sexual health advice.
Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s National Director for Mental Health, said: “Throughout this pandemic, NHS services have been there for those who need them, including the victims of violence and sexual abuse.
“If anyone has experienced domestic abuse or sexual assault, it’s important for them to know that a range of services, including mental health support, is available for you.
“Everyone is different and needs different types of support, but please remember that NHS is here to listen to you and support you.”
In July 2019 around 2,500 patients accessed SARC services but that fell to 1,250 in the same month last year.
While these numbers have steadily increased since last July they are still not at pre-pandemic levels.
The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have exacerbated domestic violence, with many victims trapped at home with their abusers.
Official ONS figures show that domestic abuse cases have increased 7% in the period from April to June last year compared with the same period in 2019.
The letter to local NHS services stresses that all parts of the health service can support people to seek help for abuse and assault during the pandemic and moving forward.
NHS England Chief Dental Officer Sara Hurley has also published guidance for dentists for how dental teams can and should help survivors and victims.
As dental professionals are likely to observe and identify injuries to the head, face, mouth and teeth, they are well placed to identify the risks that a patient may face, and should keep accurate records of this.
Sara Hurley, Chief Dental Officer for NHS England said: “Combating domestic abuse is not just a medical mission, it’s a moral mission too and dentists are determined to play their part.
“Dentists and dental nurses are likely to meet patients with broken teeth and injuries to their mouths, so the NHS focus in this area is critical.
The number of people looking for help online for domestic abuse over lockdown has increased by more than 350% compared to the previous year, while use of support lines and web chat activity has increased by 54% and 70% respectively for the same period.
Sexual assault charity The Survivors Trust has also reported that in the past week its website traffic has increased by 65%, with nearly 1,000 people a day searching for support and information about rape and sexual abuse.
Kate Davies, the NHS director of sexual assault services commissioning, said: “This is a key moment in time in the fight against domestic abuse and sexual assault, and NHS England is playing its part in helping victims get the help they deserve.
“All organisations have a role to play in preventing violence against women, including the NHS, which is why today, myself and other senior NHS staff have written to all regional directors and leads to remind them of advice to NHS staff and how to spot signs of domestic abuse and the services that are available to help women and prevent further harm.”
In response to the decline in patients coming forward, NHS England has invested £2.5 million in voluntary sector developments to support access to specialist sexual violence services, in particular therapeutic support, such as helplines, online chat support, and online counselling.”
SARCs have remained open and accessible during COVID-19 to offer non-judgemental advice and support for anyone who needs it.
This includes forensic examination services to those who want it to support a criminal prosecution, but this is optional, and as with all other NHS services, patients have full confidentiality.
As well as caring for patients, as an employer, the NHS has an obligation to assess any risk and support the health and safety of employees. As part of this, the NHS has published resources to help managers support employees who may be the victims and survivors of domestic abuse and violence.
Anyone can be a victim of domestic abuse, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexuality or background.
Domestic abuse is not always physical violence, it can also include:
- Coercive control and ‘gaslighting’
- Economic abuse
- Online abuse
- Threats and intimidation
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
- NHS Sexual Assault Referral clinics (SARCs) can be accessed via NHS.UK website.
- Broader information on NHS support for sexual assault can be found on the NHS.UK website.
- Free, confidential support is available via The Survivors Trust National Helpline 08088 010 818. Opening hours:
- Mon – Fri 10am-8:30pm
- Sat 10am-12:30pm, 1:30pm-4:30pm and 6pm-8:30pm
- Sun 1:30pm-4:30pm, 6pm-8:30pm
People who have signed the letter include:
- Amanda Pritchard, Chief Operating Officer
- Kate Davies, Director of Health and Justice, Armed Forces and Sexual Assault Referral Centres
- Ruth May, Chief Nursing Officer England
- Nikki Kanani, Medical Director for Primary Care
- Prerana Issar, Chief People Officer
- Sara Hurley, Chief Dental Officer England
- Matthew Jolly, National Clinical Director for Maternity and Women’s Health
- Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, Chief Midwifery Officer
- Claire Murdoch, National Director for Mental Health
- Martin Griffiths, National Clinical Director for Violence Reduction
- Hillary Garrett OBE, Deputy Chief Nursing Officer England