A code-word scheme to help victims of domestic violence in the pharmacy has its positives and negatives, writes Terry Maguire

Domestic violence, in all its forms and degrees, has increased in the Covid-19 lockdowns imposed periodically since March 2020. This dark, vicious corner of human behaviour should be allowed no hiding place in modern life but sadly, too many women, and yes it’s mainly women, bear the brunt of controlling, manipulative, cruel and brutal partners. Too many deaths could have been avoided, were proper support provided.

To be fair, government recognised this risk when in lockdown people were, and are, forced together for long periods in stressful settings. It is impressive, then, that the UK Home Office has come to pharmacy as a trusted partner in delivering an initiative that was launched in the New Year.

Pharmacies have been identified as safe spaces where help and support can be accessed by those subjected to domestic abuse and seeking to escape it. Victims — they prefer to be called ‘survivors’ — can come into a pharmacy and using the code-phrase ‘Ask for ANI’ (pronounced ‘Annie’), will be taken off to a quiet area where they are kept safe and from where they will be given access to support such as Women’s Aid or another agency.
If necessary, they will leave the pharmacy and enter a secure hostel, for example, where they and their children will be safe and they will be provided with all necessary back-up. In many cases, this can mean starting a new life, which will be very difficult, but very necessary.

I am greatly impressed and encouraged by this explicit endorsement of the social capital community pharmacies deliver to their local communities and it emphasises and recognises our important and increasing public health role. It endorses the importance of community pharmacies as integral to local communities, and it is recognition such as this that will ensure we will be sustainable into the future.

I am less impressed on the scheme delivery. When the public media, in the second week of January, was waxing lyrical on this new initiative from community pharmacy, I was taken aback, feeling I had missed some important communication. I then found a letter that had been sent by our negotiators CPNI in November, but it was non-committal in its tone. It was issued to “make contractors aware”. The code-word scheme, we were told, is designed to allow victims to access support on domestic violence “within their community from the safety of their local pharmacy”.

The letter went on to identify websites that would provide more information, contact details and most importantly, training. There was a need to sign-up to provide the scheme. Nothing more until the media blitz in early January. Few pharmacies had signed-up or completed the training. I was not the only outlier.

Few pharmacies in NI had contact details for the domestic violence charities to whom we would be connecting domestic violence victims. Seems Boots had been more linked-in and better prepared. There is a real risk this initiative could have done more harm than good. Firstly, the lukewarm endorsement by our negotiator and the lack of contact from the charities suggested that this was not really all that important. It is very important. Ironically, Woman’s Aid NI were in most pharmacies in November with posters and material but, certainly in our case, did not mention the initiative.

My main concern is that a woman might visit a local pharmacy and ‘Ask about ANI’, only for pharmacy staff to stare bewildered and when they confirm that they haven’t the slightest clue what she is talking about, force her to return home, the very home she has just tried to escape because of the intolerable violence within. Not good enough. We needed to be better committed to such worthwhile initiatives. We owe it to the women of our communities.

My better half has spent many years as a volunteer for Women’s Aid NI and while she would never discuss specific cases, she has expressed her horror at the treatment within the home of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Pharmacies have a public health-commissioned service, ‘Living Well’, and its seems logical that this initiative should have been used to commit all pharmacies into the ‘Ask About ANI’ scheme. It’s still not too late.

Terry Maguire
Terry Maguire

Terry Maguire owns two pharmacies in Belfast. He is an honorary senior lecturer at the School of Pharmacy, Queen’s University of Belfast. His research interests include the contribution of community pharmacy to improving public health