07 August 2020

United Kingdom: Local lockdowns and Islamophobia

The British government recently imposed short-notice "lockdown" measures on some parts of the country in northern England the night before Eid. The new restrictions were deemed Islamophobic by many and highlighted the need for the government to do more for BAME communities.

At around 21:15 local time on 30 July, Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted that 'from midnight tonight, people from different households will not be allowed to meet each other indoors' in parts of Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and West Yorkshire due to an increase in the rate of COVID-19 transmission and people not abiding by distancing rules. The announcement, made just hours before the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha was expected to begin, prompted backlash from the Muslim community. As well as raising questions about Islamophobia in the Conservative party, the measures highlight the need for the UK government to do more to protect people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities and not alienate them during the pandemic.

The announcement by Hancock effectively cancelled Eid for many families in the areas under "lockdown", which according to census figures, included several towns and cities with a high percentage of Muslims. Given at such short notice, the vague announcement gave residents little time to prepare and failed to provide local authorities with clarity on the exact nature of the measures and how they were supposed to be implemented. While non-Muslims were also affected by the measures, the closure of pubs, restaurants and other non-essential businesses were not part of the latest restrictions, leading many Muslims to question the decision and feel targeted. Many posed the question as to whether the government would announce similar measures the night before christmas?

To compound the issue, Conservative member of parliament (MP), Craig Whittaker, announced that the majority of people breaking lockdown rules were from BAME communities and particularly the Muslim community. Although Prime Minister Boris Johnson failed to condemn the accusation, social media users quickly pointed out that it was predominantly white people who broke the distancing rules when thousands of people descended onto beaches in May, when Victory in Europe (VE) day celebrations were held across the country and when the pubs reopened. Recent figures from Trafford, one of the wealthiest boroughs in Greater Manchester which was placed under the same restrictions, showed that over 80 percent of the new cases were being detected among white communities. Whittaker's comments failed to reflect the reality of the pandemic and scapegoated minority communities. They also added to concerns that Islamophobia is reaching epidemic levels within the Tory party and the latest lockdown measures are likely to be seen by many as further evidence of this.

Leicester, where Muslims make up around 20 percent of the population, became the first city to be placed under a local lockdown in June and the strategy has since become the government's preferred method of dealing with local clusters or outbreaks. In most of the areas where lockdowns have been implemented or are likely to be implemented, there are higher levels of poverty and deprivation, a higher BAME population and high density housing compared to the rest of the country. Local problems require local solutions but the government has so far refused to provide local authorities with the powers to effectively respond to the outbreak. People from BAME communities have already been shown to be at a higher risk of developing complications due to COVID-19 and the government needs to do more to protect these communities from the virus in the near-term while not alienating them further with unclear and unfair policies such as those implemented the night before Eid.