An English Conservative MP is facing calls to apologise for “shameless scapegoating of minorities” after claiming that BAME communities are not taking coronavirus seriously enough.
The comments came after the government imposed new lockdown restrictions across parts of northern England on Thursday, in response to a spike in coronavirus cases. Health Secretary Matt Hancock was criticised for announcing the restrictions on Twitter on Thursday evening, just hours before Muslims were set to start celebrating Eid al-Adha.
On Friday morning, the Muslim Council of Britain said, “With the first day of Eid being today, for Muslims in the affected areas, it is like being told they cannot visit family and friends for Christmas on Christmas Eve itself.”
Speaking to LBC radio, Craig Whittaker, the Tory MP for Calder Valley, one of the affected areas, was asked if there was a particular concern about Eid celebrations taking place during the pandemic.
“It’s nothing to do with Eid as far as I’m concerned, but… what I have seen in my constituency is that there are sections of the community that are not taking the pandemic seriously," he said.
Asked to clarify that he was talking about the Muslim community, Mr Whittaker responded: "Of course.”
"If you look at the areas where we've seen rises and cases, the vast majority – but not, by any stretch of the imagination, all areas – it is the BAME communities that are not taking this seriously enough.”
Mr Whittaker said he had been “challenging our local leaders for three weeks” over the issue.
Mr Whittaker also appeared to blame British Asians for living in crowded housing. "We have areas of high multiple occupancy – when you have multiple families living in one household. It doesn't specifically have to be in the Asian community, but that is the largest proportion,” he said.
In June, Public Health England published a report stating that BAME people are more likely to die from coronavirus. The report said that, “BAME people are more likely to live in urban areas, in overcrowded households, in deprived areas, and have jobs that expose them to higher risk. People of BAME groups are also more likely than people of White British ethnicity to be born abroad, which means they may face additional barriers in accessing services that are created by, for example, cultural and language differences.”
The Muslim Council of Britain blasted the MP, saying, “This is shameless scapegoating of minorities. Mr Whittaker should apologise.
“It is one thing to discuss health inequalities and challenges with intergenerational households and occupational hazards – and these factors being prevalent in certain groups... It’s quite another to make baseless accusations, claiming certain groups aren’t taking the pandemic seriously, especially when these claims are contradicted by a local Director of Public Health.”
Dominic Harrison, a Director of Public Health for Blackburn and Darwen Council, a nearby affected area, tweeted, “I do not think that there is any evidence that the northern towns now taking extra control measures are seeing rising rates because of exceptional local failures to social distance… The increased vulnerability to higher rates in northern towns are mostly driven by social and economic inequality.”
He said that he supported the new measures as “they align with the local measures we had already taken locally”.
Asked if he agreed with the MP’s comments at a press conference, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “I think it’s up to all of us in government to make sure the message is being heard loud and clear by everybody across the country, and to make sure that everybody is complying with the guidance.
“A huge amount of effort is now going into that, and I want to thank all the community leaders, the mosques, the imams who have worked hard with us to get messages across, all faith leaders and other community leaders, getting that message across throughout society. But ultimately it’s up to everybody. It’s up to the whole country to get this right and to do it together.”