Racial tension brewing over UK coronavirus strategy
Race expert warns lack of consultation with Muslim communities over Covid-19 restrictions could undermine social cohesion
The British government is facing a growing backlash over its stop-start approach to coronavirus lockdown measures amid concerns it is causing disproportionate disruption to Muslim communities.
A lockdown announced just before Eid Al Adha last week not only stirred concerns over the failures of the government to communicate the factors contributing to localised outbreaks, but also gave grist to those who may seek to aggravate ethnic and religious divisions.
The local restrictions were imposed in the North of England in Manchester and large parts of West Yorkshire, which almost 20 years ago were engulfed in violence.
Nissa Finney, a University of St Andrews race-relations expert, said social cohesion could be undermined by the government’s failure to involve individual communities.
“It’s important to remember that inequalities, including ethnic inequalities, are hugely variable across the country,” Ms Finney told The National.
“However, it is vital that the rationale and evidence for local lockdowns is clear and well communicated, and that there is effective consultation and information provision between local communities, local governments and national government. It seems that this has been somewhat lacking so far.
“If the consultation and communication is not clear and well managed, there’s a dual danger that local lockdowns won’t be fully effective and that social cohesion may be undermined.”
In 2001, Professor Ted Cantle was commissioned by the UK government to write a report into widespread rioting at the time.
Now he has that warned the actions of the far right need to be closely monitored to ensure extremists do not exploit the situation.
“Since 2001, we have seen the growth of the far right and their work in trying to stir up trouble in these areas,” he told The National.
“There is always a danger extremists will gain some traction and stir up tensions in the community now.”
Mr Cantle's fears were echoed in a report by the Royal United Services Institute think tank in April, which warned that far-right extremists were exploiting the pandemic and “encouraging racially motivated violence”.
Last week, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned of the risk of public disorder posed by the pandemic.
“Public health measures are never simply scientific decisions, and the consequences in terms of public order could be serious if lockdown imposition is ill-judged,” it said.
The Yorkshire city of Bradford, which was hard hit during the 2001 race riots, has already seen a backlash from some of the more affluent communities on its outskirts who feel that the restrictions should not apply to them.
One resident of Ilkley even took to Twitter to complain that because of a “certain demographic” she was back in lockdown.
In a letter to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, MP for Shipley Philip Davies wrote: "I am extremely angry and frustrated that the whole of the Shipley constituency is included in the local lockdown because of problems which are largely in central Bradford.”
The head of the Bradford Health Institute, Dr John Wright, has been forced to defuse the situation by revealing that there were more deaths in wealthier Ilkley than in the impoverished neighbourhoods named in the complaint.
“Despite residents of Ilkley complaining on social media that the town should be exempt from regulations because of its distance from Bradford city centre, it's actually had the most coronavirus deaths in any of the three local authority areas in West Yorkshire to have been put back into lockdown,” he said.
In the neighbouring district of Calder Valley, which was also placed on emergency lockdown, MP Craig Whittaker caused widespread outrage when he said that the “vast majority” of people breaking lockdown rules were from ethnic minorities.
“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 black, Asian and minority ethnic communities that are not taking this seriously enough,” he told LBC Radio.
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour MP for Tooting, has accused him of “racially charged scapegoating”.
“This racist rhetoric is based on prejudice, not facts,” she tweeted.
“It’s racially charged scapegoating designed to fuel the far right, don’t buy into it.”
Former Keighley MP Ann Cryer successfully steered her community through the aftermath of the 2001 riots.
“My main reflection on those dreadful days [during the riots] is that although it may have seemed then that West Yorkshire Police were being heavy handed I now feel it was necessary, not least to protect the reputation of the Pakistani community who are by and large not given to rioting,” she told The National.
“It was an extremely bad situation which had the potential to damage inter-community relations; in fact, briefly, it did.”
She says the communities have worked together since and successfully co-operated to defeat the far-right threat when the former leader of the British National Party Nick Griffin stood against her in the 2005 general election.
Mr Cantle urged the UK government to put “trust” in its local communities and allow the people who know the areas to make lockdown decisions.
“There is always a danger of tensions emerging in communities,” he told The National.
“Local communities have felt that their particular issues have not been listened to. The introduction of new lockdown measures on the eve of Eid celebrations calls into question whether they really understood the impact on Muslim communities.
“I think most of the crisis response ought to come through the people who know these areas rather than from a desk in Whitehall. It will be much more successful and trusted.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has told The National it is working closely with the UK government on its crisis measures.
Updated: August 6, 2020 08:37 PM