Many pharmacies across the world have been called upon to offer help to victims of domestic abuse during the coronavirus pandemic. But could the UK’s community pharmacies go further? Could the sector be crucial in tackling domestic abuse in the long term?

Since the UK has been in lockdown, charities have been encouraging victims of domestic abuse to seek help from their local pharmacies.

Pharmacies have been one of the few stores on the high street to remain open, and because of this, have been promoted as safe spaces for victims. A local pharmacy can provide victims with a place to go, who may otherwise find themselves alone with their abuser because of restrictions on movement and social-distancing.

While the involvement of pharmacies has been introduced as a short-term solution, could this be a permanent solution to helping victims beyond the pandemic?

Local pharmacies are key

Lyndsey Dearlove, Head of UK Says NO MORE at Hestia - the campaign which has argued for pharmacies to open their consultation rooms as safe spaces for victims during Covid-19 - said she believes local pharmacies are indeed ‘key’ to helping support domestic survivors in the long run.

‘We’ve tried this safe space pilot in several different places with limited success. When Covid-19 happened, we had to try and find a space that could help victims among the very few places still open.'

After contacting some of the possible spaces, Ms Dearlove said they received an ‘overwhelmingly positive response from pharmacy teams’ who believed they could do something.

A lot of pharmacy teams already felt like they had a ‘frontline role’ in helping domestic abuse victims, Ms Dearlove said.

‘A large number of pharmacies were saying that they are already engaging with these victims regularly, either by way of responding to a victim in need or having just met victims, even if they’ve not asked for help.’

Many said they felt particularly well situated to help out, Ms Dearlove explained.

‘We need to make talking about domestic violence as normal as talking about oral health’

This pharmacy-based support doesn’t have to stop after Covid-19 lockdown is lifted.

A pharmacy is often the hub of the community, a place where many people go to collect toiletries and medications. This frequent footfall makes pharmacies the ideal place to promote a wider and more normalised conversation around domestic abuse.

‘If we make the pharmacy a place in the community where domestic abuse is okay to talk about, then we offer people that bridge to further support which they might not get elsewhere.’

‘We need to make sure lots of information is in the pharmacy in the form of posters or leaflets, as that could be the only time someone sees that information - especially if their abusive partner is monitoring their phone or other forms of communication.’

To tackle domestic violence in the long term, we need to get people talking about it, explained Ms Dearlove.

‘We need to make talking about domestic violence as normal as talking about oral health,’ and pharmacy may be the best-suited place to do that, she said.

Pharmacies already offering support

Community pharmacist Ade Williams has been offering victims support successfully at his pharmacy for over two years - and believes that pharmacy could have a big role to play in helping survivors of domestic abuse more widely.

‘In many ways, I think our patients expect this kind of support from us. Pharmacy takes a holistic approach to healthcare and helping patients with issues and this is just another form of care.’

The services that pharmacy teams already provide make pharmacy well-suited to offer victims the support they need, he explained. ‘Many of us already offer services that require a degree of sensitivity, like sexual health services. We hold multiple conversations in our consultation rooms. Some, like my pharmacy, are breastfeeding friendly.’

‘Community pharmacies already hold such a trusted central role in the community - we’ve created a culture where people know their dignity and intimacy is protected,’ he added.

Hope for the future

Chief Executive of the General Pharmaceutical Council, Duncan Rudkin, similarly believes that pharmacies' ‘unique’ position in the community means they can do more to help vulnerable people.

‘Pharmacies have long been a place where people can turn to for trusted help and advice. Pharmacies and pharmacy teams have been, and remain, a key part of local communities, and hold a unique and well-established position as a point of contact and support,’ he commented.

‘We hope to see this [safe space campaign] continue long term, so pharmacies may continue to safeguard vulnerable people and help reduce domestic abuse within the UK.’

Covid-19 has made us tackle domestic abuse with urgency

David Challen, a domestic abuse campaigner, said that using pharmacies as places of support is ‘one of the most promising things we can do for victims’.

‘We need to redefine our approach to domestic abuse and make it everyone's problem,’ he said. According to Mr Challen, the sudden onset of Covid-19 has made this happen.

'Coronavirus has made us confront domestic abuse more urgency than ever before,' he said.

‘Making facilities like pharmacies available and training pharmacists so they know how to handle people in those situations is such an important step forward in how we tackle this.

‘Most domestic abuse support happens behind closed doors, so no one sees it; therefore no one knows it's happening. If we make public places like pharmacies avenues to support the public will know where to signpost victims so they can get help,’ he said.