Behind doors forced shut by coronavirus restrictions, a perfect storm has been brewing.

In June last year, domestic abuse was described by the United Nations as a “shadow pandemic” running alongside the Covid-19 crisis.

The Government said between March and June, police figures recorded 259,324 cases with a domestic abuse element – a rise of seven per cent on the same period in 2019.

But it also said: “As the number of offences flagged as domestic abuse-related has been increasing in recent years, it is not possible to determine what impact the coronavirus pandemic may have had on the increases in 2020.”

In other words, domestic abuse is a growing problem regardless of the impact of Covid-19.

Colchester-based domestic abuse charity Next Chapter says victims and perpetrators have found themselves trapped together by Covid-19 restrictions.

Worse still, with schools closed for large parts of the year, children have been exposed to violence and abuse to an even greater extent.

Men too are the victims of domestic abuse, and can find it difficult to rise above a well-established stigma against seeking help.

Men are offered support, and demand is rising for such support, at charities like Next Chapter.

But by an overwhelming majority, it is women who are bearing the brunt of abuse at the hands of their partners.

In the eight months from April through until the end of November, Next Chapter supported 1,600 people, of whom 1,450 were women.

Chief executive Beverley Jones said: “It is a gendered crime.

“We are seeing a rise in the numbers of men coming through to us, that could be because there has long been a social stigma attached to violence against men and seeking help.

“Open Road have told us 80 to 90 per cent of the cases which come through their doors have domestic abuse elements somewhere in that person’s story.

“Drug and alcohol abuse and other issues often come as a result of domestic abuse.”

She added: “Over lockdown there was a 55 to 60 per cent increase in the numbers coming through to us.”

Throughout the whole of 2019, Next Chapter supported about 2,000 individuals experiencing domestic abuse in mid and north Essex.

The charity, formerly Colchester and Tendring Women’s Refuge, provides free and confidential support to victims.

It also runs purpose-built accommodation for up to 12 women and children who have reached crisis point.

In a separate refuge, the charity provides specialist support to victims also battling an addiction.

Beverley said: “This is one of only two refuges in the country which is accommodating domestic abuse victims who also have drug and alcohol addictions.”

Typically, the charity offers refuge to between 110 and 120 women a year, alongside a similar number of children.

This number is about a third of those referred to the charity.

“Because we are full, we have to turn women away,” said Beverley.

“As an organisation we are torn between being pleased that we are busy in the sense that people know we are here, that people are reaching out for support.

“But on the flip side it is devastating we are that busy.

“It means that many, many people are suffering domestic abuse, and that we are tapping into a small proportion of those victims.”

Through risk assessment conferences, where agencies, including the police, child protection services and independent domestic violence advisors, share information, Next Chapter notes that during the pandemic, risk is rising alongside the number of cases.

“A large majority of cases coming to us are higher risk now,” said Beverley.

“This looks to be due to the fact no-one has been able to go out.

“The ability of the victim to go out and spend a degree of time away has been reduced.

Gazette: Beverley Jones and Lorna KingBeverley Jones and Lorna King

“Victims need to have a reason to leave the house and it is a way for a person to be controlled to a greater extent.

“This applies for perpetrators too, as during ‘normal’ life, they might go to the pub, see friends, play sports, watch the football.

“We have this perfect storm where they are stuck in the house together.

“Children who aren’t going to school are exposed to it, and without going to school don’t get seen by others as much.

“Because of this, we are seeing that the amount of referrals to social care have really dropped off too.”

On the other side of the coin, the pandemic has seen goodwill towards the charity flourish.

Additional funding has come from both the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner and Essex County Council.

Financial support has also been pledged from the people of Colchester and wider Essex.

Beverley said: “We’ve probably got about four to six additional practitioners working at the moment as a result of the funding we have received.

“The support this year across the board has been phenomenal, and it is important to reflect this.

“As a charity, as a result of the vulnerable people we support, we often feel quite hidden.

“But without any encouragement, people have been so generous.”

In its fledging days in the 1970s, Colchester’s women’s refuge started its life amid a widespread apathy towards domestic abuse.

One of its founders, June Freeman, has just been made an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list.

Gazette: June FreemanJune Freeman

Beverley said: “She had to go against all social norms, she had to be brave in taking a stand against domestic abuse at a time when there was real opposition to what she was doing.

“Our staff still must be brave to support women.

“The women they listen to, the stories they hear every day, the trauma they share, can be harrowing. You have to be strong, you have to brave.”