On the 23rd March 2020 the UK went into its first lockdown due to the pandemic, with people ordered to ‘stay at home’ by the Government. Overnight, victims of domestic abuse lost access to places of safety and support with many stuck at home with their abuser. On the 1st May 2020, the Safe Spaces scheme was launched by Hestia’s UK Says No More campaign, providing a safe place for victims of domestic abuse in pharmacies across the UK.

This International Women’s Day, we brought together two women from Hestia who were instrumental to the launch of Safe Spaces - Jo Tilley-Riley, Director of Fundraising and Communications and Sarah D’Angelis, Programme Manager for UK Says No More.

Where did the idea for Safe Spaces come from?

Sarah: Before the pandemic we had been piloting a scheme that sought to provide a community response to domestic abuse. Somewhere that victims could go in their local communities to get support and do so in a way that wouldn’t arouse suspicion from their abuser. We had trialled this with Islington Council and Transport for London and were just reviewing its impact when the pandemic hit. It wasn’t quite the ‘Safe Spaces’ that we eventually launched in May 2020 but it was based around the idea of using a space that already existed in the local community and providing self-help that respected what the victim needed at that time.

As soon as we went into lockdown, we knew that cases of domestic abuse would rise because home was not a safe place for so many victims of domestic abuse. I remember thinking this is really bleak, it’s a worst case scenario to be stuck at home with an abuser, with nowhere to go.

Jo: Exactly – overnight victims lost that chance to have a chat with someone at the school gate, to see family and friends or go to their doctors. Fairly quickly, we started to see a shift in the type of calls we were getting to our refuge referral line. Instead of a couple of longer calls from victims which would then lead to them getting a space in a refuge, we were getting multiple short calls. So when someone went to the toilet, they would make a call but they could only be on for 5 minutes because they were being monitored all the time by their abuser. That really highlighted the new risk that was emerging for victims at a time when traditional avenues for support were no longer there. So we knew we needed to do something different and do it quickly.

Why did you decide to launch Safe Spaces in pharmacies?

Sarah: We knew we wanted to roll out Safe Spaces nationally but we also knew that in lockdown there was no opportunity to train support staff. So we looked at what businesses were still open and that led us to supermarkets and pharmacies. We also needed a really simple model if we were to do things quickly. Yet we also needed to ensure victims needs were met. It became clear from various conversations with organisations like the General Pharmaceutical Council that pharmacies could be an ideal way to start because their staff were already trained in safeguarding and most of them had a consulting room, so a safe space.

Jo: I remember when Sarah and Lyndsey Dearlove [Former Head of Domestic Abuse Prevention] came to me and said, we’ve been talking to pharmacy networks about how we respond to domestic abuse and we think we could roll out Safe Spaces in pharmacies. It was such a simple idea – pharmacies were on the frontline, they were open and most importantly they were somewhere that victims could still go without arousing suspicion. And it was because it was so simple that we were able to mobilise and launch Safe Spaces so quickly.

Sarah: I can remember being in my garden, pacing back and forth, having these intense conversations with people like Marc Donovan from Boots and Claire Bryce-Smith from the General Pharmaceutical Council about how it could work practically. They were such passionate believers right from the start – they knew the power of community support and the important role that pharmacies played. But we still had a lot of practical things to sort out – for example, at that time pharmacists couldn’t accompany people to the consulting room so we needed to think of what was in that room so that people could still access the help they needed. We redesigned a lot of the posters and materials and made sure they had access to a phone so they could call friends, family, or a support line.

Jo: Looking back, from our decision to roll it out and being live in Boots, it was just two weeks. It’s incredible when I think about what we achieved in such a short space of time. We had a lot of support from people such as Nicole Jacobs, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, and Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner. Everyone was so determined – they could see it made sense and would ultimately save lives.

What was it like to see Safe Spaces go live and what impact has it had?

Sarah: I still get quite emotional thinking about this. I can remember seeing all the media pieces about Safe Spaces and the buzz about it on social media but for me, I’ll never forget seeing the first independent pharmacy sign up and it was in my home town of Luton. Then hundreds of pharmacies were signing up, Superdrug launched a few days later and then Morrisons and it was like this ripple effect of community support. So many people actively cared and wanted to be a part of it. I’ve worked in this sector for fifteen years and I’ve never experienced anything like it.

Jo: Personally for me, Safe Spaces was the light in the darkness, it really was. In the middle of the awfulness of the pandemic, when we were seeing such a horrific impact on so many of our clients at Hestia, we had this amazing thing happening that was changing people’s lives. It was so easy to feel overwhelmed at that time but being able to put our energy into Safe Spaces gave us this focus and drive. To be part of something so positive has had a really big impact on me. I am so proud of it and of our team.

Sarah: And the impact was from day one. In the first few weeks over 230 people used a Safe Space. I had a call from one woman who wanted to thank me and told me that Safe Spaces had saved her life. She would go to Boots in her lunchtime and that’s how she planned her escape.

Jo: Yes, we’ve had people write to us and say I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Safe Spaces – that’s incredible. And women in our refuges have been telling us that they used a Safe Space. I think it has also raised awareness of domestic abuse and has helped to break down taboos, although we still have a long way to go. But I feel Safe Spaces has shifted the conversation.

You’ve now launched Safe Spaces in banks and online, what’s next?

Sarah: At the moment we’ve gone from a global pandemic into a cost of living crisis and victims of domestic abuse need us more than ever. I think Safe Spaces has shown what businesses and the local community can do when they join together, so I would like to see it continue to expand, including remote and rural areas. We want to make sure that all victims of domestic abuse, wherever they are, can access the support they need.

Jo: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. I want every victim of domestic abuse to have access to a Safe Spaces on their doorstep. This isn’t just a Hestia response to domestic abuse, it has to be a UK wide response and we know Safe Spaces works best when it is a community response.

It is so easy to feel overwhelmed by an issue like domestic abuse but what Safe Spaces shows is that if you find the right idea and keep it simple then people will want to support you.

Find out more about Safe Spaces