A Tory MP has defended his claim that some Muslims in West Yorkshire are not taking the pandemic seriously.

Craig Whittaker said the “vast majority” of those breaking the rules in his constituency were from black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.

Tory peer Baroness Warsi called his comments “divisive nonsense” and Labour said they were “overtly racist”.

But Mr Whittaker said he would continue to speak out to try and prevent excess deaths in BAME communities.

The row came as restrictions on social contacts between households across West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and parts of Lancashire were re-imposed in response to a rise in infections.

Mr Whittaker’s Calder Valley seat was one of the areas affected by the new measures, announced at short notice on Thursday night.

The MP told LBC radio there were “sections of the community that are not taking the pandemic seriously”. When asked if he was talking about the Muslim community, he replied: “Of course.”

He went on to say he was talking specifically about the situation in his constituency, particularly in three wards in Halifax where there was a high proportion of Asian residents, or houses of multiple occupancy.

“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 BAME communities that are not taking this seriously enough.”

Asked to justify his comments in an interview with the BBC, Mr Whittaker said he was basing them on data from the UK’s test and trace system for infection rates in the borough of Calderdale.

“The evidence is that we have three communities within Calderdale – and we have to see and show that we are concerned about these areas,” he said.

“But we also have to help these communities to make sure we don’t have excess deaths”.

The MP said he had received “hate mail” but stood by his remarks, saying “unless we talk about these things openly… sensible conversations” would not be possible about the actions needed to stop a resurgence of the virus.

“Because I am white do I not say these things? I am not going to just be quiet because some people don’t like what I have said,” he added in an interview with BBC Yorkshire’s Political Editor James Vincent.

His remarks prompted a backlash from Labour MPs representing seats in the area.

Huddersfield’s Barry Sheerman said the widespread flouting of the rules he had witnessed had “nothing to do with religion”.

“If Craig Whittaker joined me in walking past pubs, as I have done in the past few days, and you don’t see many Muslims in pubs, he would see they are full of people inside and outside totally disobeying the social distancing rules,” he said.

“I have seen naughty people breaking the rules of every creed, race and religion.”

And Tracy Brabin, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, said the comments were “not helpful”, particularly since ethnic minority communities had suffered disproportionately from the virus.

Labour’s shadow equalities spokeswoman Marsha de Cordova urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to condemn what she called the “disgraceful” and “overly racist” comments and to “take action” against Mr Whittaker.

Former Tory chairwoman Baroness Warsi, who was the UK’s first Muslim cabinet minister, said the MP seemed to be singling out BAME groups when there were many others who had more obviously transgressed.

She tweeted: “There are some folk who aren’t taking lockdown seriously eg beach lovers, pub goers, illegal ravers, anti face mask protestors, football cup win celebrators etc.

“Do we now categorise all by race? So white tan seekers vs BAME folk in Craig’s world? This divisive nonsense must.”

Asked about Mr Whittaker’s comments at a press conference in Downing Street, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said faith leaders had a crucial role to play in ensuring all sections of the community stick to the rules.

“I want to thank all the community leaders, I want to thank the mosques and the imams who have worked hard with us to get message across.

“But ultimately it is up to the whole country to get this right and do it together.”

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