Tory refuses to apologise for comments to vaccine sceptics after Gove’s demand

Sam Blewett, PA Political Correspondent
·5-min read

Senior Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne has refused to apologise for telling vaccine sceptics to “persist” with their campaign against coronavirus lockdown restrictions, arguing that he was unaware of their position on jabs.

Cabinet member Michael Gove told the former minister to 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 over his remarks, or for a separate interview with anti-vaxxer Del Bigtree, and it is understood he will be asked to attend meetings with scientific advisers.

Sir Desmond told the Save Our Rights UK group, which argues wrongly that vaccines are “being rushed through safety testing” and has posted discussions online with conspiracy theorist David Icke, that some Covid-19 figures have been “manipulated” and called on them to “persist” in their campaign.

In an interview with the PA news agency, the New Forest West MP said he is “evangelical” in his support for the vaccination programme and pointed out that he is on 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, in comments first reported by Sky News, but insisted they should stick to the rules.

Earlier, Mr Gove called for Sir Desmond to issue a full retraction and apologise for his “unacceptable” comments.

The senior Cabinet minister told Sky News: “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 if he thinks the MP should be kicked out of the 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 holds 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 the figures were “bouncing round at the typical level of deaths for the time of year”.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

This month Sir Desmond told US anti-vaxxer Mr Bigtree that the UK has become “a police state” and accused the Government of attempting to implement “social control” through actions such as the mandatory wearing of face masks, the broadcaster reported.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner demanded that Boris Johnson takes action against Sir Desmond for “endorsing dangerous anti-vaccination campaigners, spreading disinformation and promoting conspiracy theories”.

“It is clear that Desmond Swayne has no intention of apologising or withdrawing his dangerous remarks,” she said.

“After the Conservatives have refused to act, the Prime Minister must intervene urgently, condemn these comments and take action. A failure to do so risks undermining our national effort to defeat this virus, combat dangerous anti-vaccine disinformation and vaccinate Britain.”

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”.