By Digital Presenter and Producer Mojo Abidi
A new codeword scheme which allows domestic abuse victims to discreetly indicate they need help, has been criticised by a domestic violence charity.
From Thursday, people can 'Ask for Ani' at thousands of pharmacies nationwide.
They will then be led into a private consultation room where staff can help them contact the police and specialist support services, without their abusers or other members of the public knowing.
But Women's Aid, a charity which supports women and children suffering domestic abuse, are concerned the initiative does not meet required standards.
Nicki Norman, acting chief executive at Women’s Aid, says: "We know from survivors that the first response they receive when they reach out is critical for their next step.
"But it is neither fair nor safe to expect staff members to respond to a survivor effectively without robust staff training, facilitated by an expert trainer.
"We also remain concerned that the ‘Ask for Ani’ scheme will not be accessible to all marginalised groups, including migrant women, deaf and disabled women and LGBT survivors."
The charity says it is essential that victims get the right support, the first time.
Women's Aid believe the pharmacy staff have not received adequate training to give safe and effective responses.
"Improving gateways to support and safety in our communities is essential. However, we remain concerned that the national scheme does not meet critical safeguards," says Mr Norman.
'Ask for Ani' is the first national government-backed codeword scheme.
People can use the codeword at 2,300 Boots branches and nearly 300 independent pharmacies.
The government says that 'Ask for Ani' staff have been specially trained to provide a safe, private space for victims.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson says: "As we once again have to ask people across the country to stay at home to tackle this virus, it’s vital that we take action to protect those for who home is not a safe space.
"That is why we have launched this scheme, supported by pharmacies up and down the country, to give some of the most vulnerable people in society a critical lifeline – making sure they have access to the support they need and keep them safe from harm."
Discreet social media campaigns will advertise the phrase and pharmacies will be given promotional material to put up in stores so people know they are participating.
"The codeword scheme will offer a lifeline to all victims, ensuring they get urgent help in a safe and discreet way," says Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins.
'Ask for Ani' has been launched in response to surging levels of domestic violence during the Covid pandemic.
Official figures show that in the first three months of lockdown, a fifth of offences recorded by officers in England and Wales related to domestic abuse.
And ITV News has learnt that some forces spent Christmas week responding to so many incidents of domestic abuse, it made up over half of their workload.
Meanwhile, the government is urging employers to offer better support to workers experiencing domestic abuse.
Business minister Paul Scully has written an open letter to employers to encourage them to be on the lookout for signs of any of their staff being abused.
Signs include sudden changes in behaviour, drops in professional performance or physical marks such as bruising.
Help and support
Call the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247 for confidential, non-judgemental information and support.
Contact a local domestic abuse service by using the Domestic Abuse Directory.
If you are in immediate danger, call 999.