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.
Mr Gove said: “Sir Desmond is wrong. I work with Sir Desmond, I have great affection for him but I’m afraid here he is completely out of order.”
He added: “I would hope that he issues a full and complete retraction and apology for what he said – it’s unacceptable.”
It is understood that the Conservative chief whip Mark Spencer is speaking to Sir Desmond and will be asking him to attend a meeting with scientific advisers.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said the MP had “undermined” the government’s messaging and public confidence in the vaccine programme.
She labelled Sir Desmond’s comments as “really dangerous” and called for the whip to be removed immediately.
“Just saying he is wrong is nowhere near enough,” Ms Rayner said.
Sky News revealed Sir Desmond’s comments in an exclusive story on Wednesday.
Sir Desmond, who was a senior aide to former prime minister David Cameron, told Sky News he would not apologise for telling a group – which says vaccines are dangerous – to “persist” with its 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 News put these comments to Sir Desmond, he said he had never heard of Mr 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.”
The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which tracks anti-vax misinformation online, said comments like these “would cost lives”.
According to CCDH, which tracks anti-vax misinformation online, Mr Bigtree is one of the most influential spreaders of anti-vaccine lies.
They said: “People of course have been confused by a new pathogen, a new disease which has emerged.
“It’s caused a lot of concern. To see a member of parliament feeding off that concern, feeding the beast so to speak, is incredibly cynical, incredibly damaging, and will cost lives.”
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