Domestic abuse victims will be able to “ask for Ani” at more than 2,600 chemists nationwide as the UK launches the first national Government-backed codeword scheme.

Victims will be able to go to some 2,300 branches of Boots and more than 300 independent chemists and use the codeword “Ani” – spoken as in Annie and standing for Action Needed Immediately – to appeal for help to escape their abuser.

Staff who have been trained to deal with the victims will take them to a safe space such as a consulting room where they can contact the police to investigate or a national domestic abuse helpline.

Similar schemes have been set up in France and Spain amid surges in domestic abuse calls or reports during lockdown when victims have been trapped at home with their abusive partners.

The scheme, devised by domestic abuse charity Safelives, will be launched on Thursday by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and Victoria Atkins, the minister responsible for domestic abuse, with a marketing campaign to promote it to potential victims. 

Ms Patel first signalled the plan in an article for The Telegraph last May when she said that for “someone who is emotionally and physically trapped, a trip to the pharmacy may be their only escape from their abuser”.

“The scheme will be designed to be simple and easy to understand, but we hope it will save many lives,” she added. 

There have been similar campaigns for victims of sexual violence or date rape in clubs or pubs where posters alert anyone feeling vulnerable that they can use a codeword to get help from trained bar staff by asking to “speak to Angela”.

One senior source involved with the scheme said: “If you are a victim of domestic abuse, it gets worse during lockdown because you cannot get away. You have nowhere to go because your partner is not at work.

“The only way to get out of the house is to go to the supermarket where there are often pharmacists or to a high street pharmacist.

“The codeword can help because not everyone speaks English and domestic abuse is a very difficult thing to explain to a stranger. It is complicated and embarrassing.”

The scheme has been backed by Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird and Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs.

It will run alongside a similar “safe spaces” initiative by Hestia where victims can use consulting rooms in Boots to contact specialist domestic abuse services for support and advice.

Some 1.6 million women and 757,000 men suffered domestic abuse last year, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales. Police last year recorded a nine per cent rise in domestic abuse crimes to nearly 760,000.

The national domestic abuse hotline logged a 65 per cent increase in calls and contacts in the first lockdown between April and June, compared with the first three months of the year.

They were still 12 per cent up by mid-May, which the Office for National Statistics attributed to the difficulties victims faced in safely seeking support during the lockdown.