A Conservative MP has been accused of making baseless allegations after he said the “vast majority” of people breaching coronavirus lockdown rules were from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, particularly those from Muslim backgrounds.
Craig Whittaker, the MP for Calder Valley, West Yorkshire since 2010, told LBC radio there were “sections of our community that are just not taking the pandemic seriously”.
Asked if by this he meant the Muslim community, Whittaker said: “Of course. If you look at the areas where we have seen rises, and cases, the vast majority – not by any stretch of the imagination all areas – it is the BME communities that are not taking this seriously enough.”
Boris Johnson, when asked during a Downing Street press conference on coronavirus whether he agreed with Whittaker’s comments, did not distance himself from them, saying only that it was “up to the whole country to get this right”.
“I think it’s up to all of us in government to make sure that the message is being heard loud and clear by everybody across the country, and to make sure that everybody is complying with the guidance,” the prime minister said, thanking mosques and imams for spreading the message on social distancing.
Whittaker’s constituency is among those areas affected by new lockdown rules announced overnight which bar people from meeting others in homes or gardens. The announcement came ahead of Eid, but Whittaker said the breaching of rules had nothing to do with the Muslim celebration.
“What it is, and what I have seen in my constituency, is that we have areas of our community, sections of our community, that are just not taking the pandemic seriously.”
Asked if he accepted his comments could bring criticism, the MP replied: “Absolutely. But I’ve been challenging our local leaders now for two weeks – in fact three weeks – asking what are we doing to target these areas, to let people know that this is still a very serious problem. And until people take it seriously, then we’re not going to get rid of this pandemic.
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“It’s not just the Asian community in our area. We also have areas of high multiple-occupancy that are in the same boat. When you have multiple families living in one household – that doesn’t specifically have to be the Asian community, but that is the largest proportion.”
He added: “You look at all the areas [affected by local lockdowns]: we’ve got Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees. Bradford in particular and Kirklees have two of the largest populations in West Yorkshire.”
In Trafford, a mostly affluent part of Greater Manchester, health officials said younger middle-class residents were behind the recent rise in cases, not the south Asian community.
Eleanor Roaf, Trafford council’s director of public health, said about 57% of the new cases were people aged 25 or below and included those in its wealthiest suburbs, Altrincham and Hale, where footballers and actors live.
“It’s spread across Trafford. It’s not concentrated at all in our more deprived areas,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“My real concern is perhaps the messaging. Definitely the harms from Covid are concentrated in the more deprived areas but in fact anyone can get it and we really need to make sure that people living in wealthier areas aren’t complacent because that’s the biggest risk.
“Altrincham, Hale, have been some of our hotspots in Trafford, so the messaging I’m wanting to get out is [that] absolutely anyone can get it.”
A spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said: “This is shameless scapegoating of minorities. It is utterly unacceptable and Mr Whittaker should apologise. Mosques and Muslim institutions have gone above and beyond to ensure social distancing rules are observed and have initiated unprecedented education campaigns to ensure they are upheld by families.
“It’s 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 allegations claiming certain groups aren’t taking the pandemic seriously.”