A Tory MP who urged anti-vaccination campaigners to keep going with their fight against coronavirus restrictions and told them NHS capacity figures were being “manipulated” is “wrong” and “completely out of order”, a senior minister has said.
Michael Gove told Sky News that Sir Desmond Swayne should apologise and retract his comments.
However, the Cabinet Office minister would not be drawn on whether he should lose the Conservative whip.
Sky News revealed Sir Desmond’s comments in an exclusive story on Wednesday.
Sir Desmond told Sky News he would not apologise for telling a group – who say vaccines are dangerous – to “persist” with their campaign against COVID-19 restrictions.
During an interview in November with Save our Rights UK, obtained by Sky News, he said: “It seems to be a manageable risk, particularly as figures have been manipulated… We’re told there is a deathly, deadly pandemic proceeding at the moment.
“That is difficult to reconcile with ICUs (intensive care units) actually operating at typical occupation levels for the time of year and us bouncing round at the typical level of deaths for the time of year.”
He also told the group, which has previously advanced false claims about COVID vaccines, in the interview: “As the last (House of Commons) Speaker used to say, (John) Bercow, he’d say ‘Persist! Persist!’ That’s my advice – persist.
“And I’ll persist too.”
There is no evidence of data being manipulated, and at the time of the MP’s comments, deaths were 14% above the five-year average – according to the Office for National Statistics.
Sir Desmond, a former minister, also gave an interview two weeks ago to notorious anti-vaxxer Del Bigtree, who was a producer for Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vaccine propaganda film, Vaxxed.
Mr Wakefield is a former doctor who was struck off the UK medical register for a discredited study linking the MMR vaccine to autism.
In this interview, Sir Desmond claimed Britain had become “a police state” and accused the government of attempting to implement “social control”, while the anti-vaxxer praised the MP as a “hero”.
He said: “There are aspects of this (the government’s actions) which I’m certain come down to social control, like the wearing of masks, the medical case you’ve just rubbished it earlier this evening.”
When Sky put these comments to Sir Desmond, he said he had never heard of Del Bigtree.
He also doubled down on the comments about masks, saying he regards it as a matter of “social control”.
The New Forest West MP added he was entitled to make his point of view on any platform.
“I’m entitled to answer legitimate questions that people put to me,” he said.
“It does not in any way mean that I accept points of view that they hold.”
Over three nights Sky News will host a series of special programmes examining the UK’s response to the pandemic.
Watch COVID Crisis: Learning the Lessons at 8pm on 9, 10 and 11 February