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Puru Miah finds Trevor Philips’ appointment as adviser to Public Health England and his Times comments about Muslims and Covid-19 deeply objectionable

Trevor Phillips has had a complicated history with the Muslim community. On 20th April, things got a lot more complicated when he claimed in the Times that, due to Muslims’ cultural practices, Covid-19 has had a lesser impact. The facts on the ground in Tower Hamlets say otherwise: that it is down to good old fashioned proactive public health engagement with the Muslim community. I know because I was there as a councillor on the ground, with public health officials, persuading the local Muslim community to voluntarily self-isolate before the Government’s own pronouncement and enforced lockdown.

In the controversial article, Trevor Philips starts with some facts then attempts to join the dots through some caricature and tropes. First, the facts: that despite making up only 14% of the population, 35% of intensive care patients – and 17% of deaths – are from an ethnic minority. He then goes on to state that areas with large Muslim communities appear to be less affected than expected. He explains: ‘Were poverty the key determinant, we would expect the virus to be running rampant among Britain’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim communities.’ He gives the example of Tower Hamlets, in East London, which is more than a third Muslim and surrounded by coronavirus hotspots but appears cocooned from it. He explains this exception through the use of tropes, emphasising the otherness of the Muslim community: the ritual practice of washing five times a day for prayers; economic inactivity; and keeping women at home.

Apart from the ridiculousness of 19th-century colonial Orientalist analysis being applied in 21st century multicultural East London, the analysis does not meet the facts on the ground. The reality of the low number of infections is partly due to a proactive approach by Public Health officials to reach out and explain the health emergency to key stakeholders in the Muslim community and arming them with facts to communicate to their local communities.

On Wednesday 18th March the Tower Hamlets Council of Mosques held a meeting with an Infectious Disease specialist and an official from Public Health England. I was present, assisting the doctors in their presentation to the Council of Mosques. The meeting was the result of frantic communications the weekend before, explaining the nature and threat of the coronavirus epidemic, by health professionals and myself.

This proactive engagement yielded results, with the Council of Mosques agreeing with doctors’ recommendation to close the mosques to public congregational prayers. This decision along with the presentation was immediately communicated by the mosques to stakeholders and congregation members. This was two days before the Government’s announcement of the lockdown and five days before the imposition of the lockdown on 23rd March. The meeting was important, as all the mosques in unison did not hold public prayers on Friday that week, preventing the potential spread of the virus among 50,000 regular attendees of Friday prayers in Tower Hamlets.

The controversy around Trevor Philips, the Muslim Community and Covid-19 continues with his appointment by Public Health England to provide expert support to an inquiry into why increasing numbers of victims of the coronavirus pandemic are from BAME backgrounds. The inquiry is being held to examine the evidence which shows that black people are dying from the virus at almost twice the rate of their proportion of the population, according to the analysis of NHS England data for the first 12,600 deaths from the virus in English hospitals. While black people account for 3.4% of the population, they make up 6.4% of the deaths so far.

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the umbrella group for leading mosques and other Islamic institutions, said the review into the deaths was urgently needed but have objected to Phillips’ appointment, saying that it is inappropriate that a man recently suspended from the Labour Party over allegations of Islamophobia, and who has a history of making controversial remarks about Muslims, should form part of the team leading the inquiry.

One can only hope that Public Health England relies on facts and the evidence on the ground, applying Ockham’s Razor to draw their conclusion, rather than fanciful tropes advanced by Trevor Philips.

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