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31 July 2020

British Muslims are being scapegoated for the government’s coronavirus failures

A Conservative MP has claimed that ethnic minority Britons, particularly Muslims, are not taking the coronavirus seriously. But the evidence is thin at best. 

By Stephen Bush

Are the United Kingdom’s BAME communities failing to take lockdown seriously enough? That’s the eyebrow-raising claim made by Craig Whittaker, the Conservative MP for Calder Valley, who went on to specifically single out British Muslims for blame, a claim Boris Johnson opted not to disown at his press conference today. 

One problem with Whittaker’s thesis is that there is no credible explanation as to why British Muslims wouldn’t take social distancing as seriously as any other group of British citizens. Social distancing is being observed throughout much of the world, including in Muslim-majority countries, as the haunting but beautiful photos of Muslims on the Hajj demonstrate.

So Whittaker is making a fascinating claim here: that British Muslims, distinct among both Britons and Muslims across the world, aren’t particularly bothered by social distancing guidelines.

It’s true to say that Britain’s ethnic minorities are more likely to have been fined under the coronavirus laws than white Britons. But we don’t know why: given that the places issuing the most fines in raw terms are tourist spots, it may simply be that some police forces are using a fairly unsophisticated way of profiling them – and in any case, when you look at the location of people being fined, much of the disproportionality disappears, particularly in high-performing police forces like Cleveland, Durham Constabulary, Northumbria and the City of London: all with very different regular demands but with a high level of tourism. We are, in any case, talking about tiny minorities in both instances: the vast majority of British people, regardless of age, ethnicity, religion or gender is following the coronavirus regulations. 

It is also hard to reconcile the government’s own figures with the claims there is a distinct problem of British Muslims not observing lockdown rules at work. When we look at the local authorities with a significant spike in cases and the ones without, the presence or absence of a large ethnic minority community, or of a specifically Muslim one has no bearing on the coronavirus picture.

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There are a number of reasons why ethnic minorities are more likely to have the novel coronavirus, thanks to the consequences of a series of short and long term policy decisions by various political parties. Ethnic minority Brits are more likely to live in crowded homes, which increase the risks of most diseases including the novel coronavirus. They are also heavily concentrated among the ranks of Britain’s key workers: being more likely to work for the NHS, on public transport, as cab drivers and in shops.

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Add to that the aggravating factors about the government’s communication strategy, which has consistently struggled to get its message out to community papers or media outlets, that the language of government advice is still too frequently in fairly complicated jargon, and there is little reason to suppose that, in the event there is a large and undetected number of ethnic minorities not following the social distancing rules, it is because they aren’t taking the crisis seriously. It’s more likely that any discrepancy is a combination of greater exposure to the disease, and worse communication to many of the United Kingdom’s ethnic minority groups. 

It’s more likely to be a result of the shortcomings of state capacity that I wrote about this morning – the government has not managed to use the tools at its disposal to actually communicate with the country, or with local councils or other institutions. Assuming that is, that there is a problem to begin with, which we can’t say with any confidence.

Of course, what we can say is that the government wants an insurance policy if we end up with a second spike of infections: and that that will involve blaming the public, in this case British Muslims. We should be clear that the evidence doesn’t support that claim.