Responding to the report's findings, the Victims' Commissioner said: "we must not set a precedent whereby defendants are able to use the stresses of lockdown as a justification or defence for killing," as she warned agencies to be "hyper-alert to any form of 'Covid blaming.'"

Coronavirus was “weaponised” by domestic abusers during the pandemic and police forces should remain alert to “Covid blaming” as an excuse or defence by suspects, a study has found.

The report by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing found some domestic abusers appeared to have tried to use the Covid-19 pandemic as a cover-up or excuse for domestic abuse and even homicide.

It is the first report of the Domestic Homicide Project, established by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing working with National Policing Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme (VKPP) in 2020.

The Project found that Covid-19 acted as an ‘escalator and intensifier of existing abuse’ in some instances, with victims less able to seek help due to Covid restrictions. It also concluded that Covid had not ‘caused’ domestic homicide, but it had been ‘weaponised’ by some abusers as both a new tool of control over victims, and – in some cases – as an excuse or defence for abuse or homicide of the victim.

Evidence from the report also supports existing research that coercive and controlling behaviour is associated with higher risk of homicide.

The evidence shows that victims were mostly female (73%), while most suspects were male (80%), and this was across all homicide types, except for child deaths where more than half the suspects were female (59%).

Just under half (48%) of all suspects were previously reported to police as suspects for domestic abuse – this was most pronounced in intimate partner and victim suicide cases. A further 10% were known to police for non-domestic abuse offending, and a further 10% were previously known to police as a victim of domestic abuse or vulnerable person. This does suggest that potential domestic homicide suspects are more ‘visible’ to police than previous studies have shown.

Multi-agency partnership working remains crucial to identifying risk and preventing domestic homicides and suicides and this is highlighted in the report. In 57% of all cases, either the victim or suspect, or both, were previously known to another agency other than police. Additionally, in 44% of cases not known to police at all, either the victim or suspect or both was previously known to another agency, most commonly children’s social services, adult social services, or mental health services.

The report contains 20 conclusions and recommendations for police and other agencies, covering a variety of areas such as: the impact of Covid, defining domestic homicide, implications for risks assessment, partnership working and further research.

The Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird QC, said:

“We know that the pandemic has led to a significant increase in the number of incidents of domestic abuse across the country. It has been termed an ‘epidemic within a pandemic’, placing unprecedented pressures on agencies trying to protect vulnerable people, and it has been an issue of great ongoing concern to me as Victims’ Commissioner. I was pleased to see the NPCC and College of Policing commit to this research during such a turbulent period: its findings are important in shining a rare light on what are often, for good reason, termed ‘hidden homicides’.

“One of the most striking and concerning themes emerging from this research was that of suspects using Covid-19 as an ‘excuse’ to control the victim or worse. The programme identified a number of cases where perpetrators have sought to ‘weaponise’ Covid as a both a new tool of coercive control over victims and – in some cases – as an excuse for domestic abuse and even homicide. It is abundantly clear that all criminal justice agencies must now be hyper-alert to any form of ‘Covid-blaming’. I have always been clear: poor mental health or stress does not cause domestic abuse. Perpetrators choose to abuse. We must not set a precedent whereby defendants are able to use the stresses of lockdown as a justification or defence for killing.

“For the first time, as part of this research, data on suspected suicides of individuals with a known history of domestic abuse victimisation was collected – and shown to be a substantial issue. We must now see more research and action in this area. While many forces are referring suspected suicides with a history of domestic abuse for domestic homicide reviews, this is not uniformly the case. I have made my position on this clear in the past: it is essential that when there is a sudden or unexplained death where domestic abuse is a known factor in the relationship, police must treat it as a potential homicide. This means immediately securing the scene, getting forensics to collect potential evidence, and commissioning an automatic forensic post-mortem. Any subsequent decision to stand down the homicide investigation must then be made by a senior investigating officer with specific domestic abuse training and experience.

“It is alarming but also not necessarily surprising to read that almost half the perpetrators identified in this research were known to the police for perpetrating domestic abuse. This further underlines the serious ongoing concerns outlined in the Centre for Women’s Justice super-complaint around the lack of protective measures put in place by police to safeguard known victims of domestic abuse. These are fundamental if we are to protect vulnerable victims from harm. Domestic Violence Protection Orders are deployed far too infrequently and there remains a lack of effective enforcement of breaches of pre-charge bail. If we are to protect victims, it remains my view that breaches of pre-charge bail must be made a criminal offence. We must see movement on this from the government in the Policing Bill.

“We know that coercive and controlling behaviour is a substantial risk factor. We now have further compelling evidence with this research: over a quarter of suspects had previously displayed controlling and coercive behaviour. So, it’s clear this is an avenue police and prosecutors must be pursuing. Yet the numbers being prosecuted are still far too low; the charging rate decreased from 11% in 2017/18 to just 6% in 2018/19. We need to see better training of the police and CPS around coercive control, so they are better able to prosecute the crime and ultimately save victims.

“Any homicide is a homicide too many. From 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021, we have borne witness to at least 215 domestic homicide deaths – on average, more than 4 a week. And this is undeniably gendered violence: 73% of intimate partner deaths and 90% of suspected suicides were female, and the suspects were overwhelmingly male (80%). Yet prior to this research, we were not properly tracking the amount of homicides and in what specific contexts. This must change, and I welcome a commitment to keep this research project going for another year. We must continue to monitor domestic homicides, to learn from these tragedies, drive change and save lives.”