Tom Swarbrick 7pm - 1am
Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne refuses to apologise over anti-vax claims
28 January 2021, 11:37 | Updated: 28 January 2021, 18:00
Senior Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne has refused to apologise for allegedly telling anti-vaccination campaigners that virus statistics were being "manipulated".
It is claimed Sir Desmond told a group of vaccine sceptics to "persist" with their campaign against coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
Sir Desmond reportedly told the Save Our Rights UK group, which argues wrongly that vaccines are "being rushed through safety testing", that some Covid-19 figures had been "manipulated" and called on them to "persist" in their campaign.
Labour is calling for the whip to be withdrawn over the claim he urged anti-vaccination campaigners to protest against coronavirus restrictions.
Sir Desmond has refused to apologise and says he fully supports the vaccine effort.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said he should apologise for his comments, telling reporters:"I think Desmond should apologise, absolutely, and he should retract the comments he has made.
"Too many people have died from this deadly, deadly virus. Look at the pressures on the NHS right now.
"Those comments are thoroughly wrong and I very much hope Desmond will reflect and take those comments back."
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove also said Sir Desmond should retract his remarks and apologise on Thursday, condemning his Conservative colleague as "completely out of order".
The Conservative Party has declined to suspend the lockdown-sceptic, or for a separate interview with anti-vaxxer Del Bigtree, and it is understood he will be asked to attend meetings with scientific advisers.
The New Forest West MP said he is "evangelical" in his support for the vaccination programme and pointed out that he is on the record as criticising the use of data and other health measures in the House of Commons.
"I have always had a great deal of respect for Michael but I'm not sure precisely what I'm being asked to apologise for," Sir Desmond said.
"I had no idea indeed I am not aware of any baggage they hold on anti-vaxx it's never been discussed, never been raised."
He said he was telling the campaigners to "persist" in the campaign against restrictions, but insisted they should stick to the rules.
Earlier, Mr Gove called for the New Forest West MP to issue a full retraction and apologise for his "unacceptable" comments.
The senior Cabinet minister 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."
Pressed on whether he will be kicked out of Tory party if he does not apologise, Mr Gove said: "I think it's for Sir Desmond to make that apology to retract and withdraw his words and I'm sure he will reflect on that mistake and I'm sure he will be very clear it was a serious mistake and an apology will be forthcoming."
Dozens of arrests have taken place during marches against lockdown restrictions organised by Save Our Rights UK.
The group also takes controversial views on vaccines, falsely claiming they are "being rushed through safety testing" despite rigorous trials and pushing doubts about the jabs.
Sky News reported that in November Sir Desmond told the group that the figures were "bouncing round at the typical level of deaths for the time of year".
He was quoted as saying: "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."
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner wrote to Conservative Party chairwoman Amanda Milling demanding action is taken against Sir Desmond.
Ms Rayner said the Tory MP "endorsed conspiracy theories about the veracity of the disease" and made a "deeply dangerous claim" about official figures.
"The seriousness of his actions cannot be understated. For a Member of Parliament to appear on this platform and undermine our fight against the pandemic could have truly devastating consequences," the Labour MP added.
A spokesman for the Conservative Whips Office said: "We completely condemn these comments.
"It is on all of us to work together to control the virus to protect the NHS and save lives.
"People across the country are sacrificing so much to help beat the virus and we thank them for their efforts."
Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which has been investigating online misinformation about coronavirus and vaccines, said Sir Desmond's words had given "legitimacy to crank anti-vaxxers".