A senior Conservative MP urged anti-vaccination campaigners to keep going with their fight against government restrictions and told them NHS capacity figures were being “manipulated” to exaggerate the scale of coronavirus, Sky News can reveal.
Sir Desmond Swayne, who was a senior aide to former prime minister David Cameron, told Sky News he would not apologise for telling a group – who say vaccines are dangerous – to “persist” with their campaign against COVID restrictions.
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.
During an interview in November with Save our Rights UK, obtained by Sky News, Sir Desmond 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, who have 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.”
The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which tracks anti-vax misinformation online, said comments like these “would cost lives”.
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.”
According to CCDH, which tracks anti-vax misinformation online, 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.”
Dr Charlotte Summers, an intensive care specialist, speaking from the Intensive Care Society, said comments like these from MPs were “deeply, deeply disappointing”.
“Every single one of those deaths was someone’s mum, dad, husband, brother, sister, someone that somebody cared about very deeply.
“To say that that wasn’t real is incredibly hurtful to the families, to their loved ones and friends, and to the staff that have been battling so hard for a year looking after patients.
“The idea that this is all just business as usual is clearly untrue, and is incredibly hurtful and disrespectful to people (NHS staff) who have stretched themselves for a year now.”
It is understood that the Conservative chief whip Mark Spencer is speaking to Mr Swayne and will be asking him to attend a meeting with scientific advisers.
A spokesperson on behalf of the 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.”
Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour party, has written to the chair of the Conservative party Amanda Milling urging her to take action against Mr Swayne.
She wrote that the Conservative MP “used an interview to spread dangerous misinformation about coronavirus”.
Ms Rayner continued in her letter: “During this interview, the MP for New Forest West endorsed conspiracy theories about the veracity of the disease. He also suggested the official figures have been manipulated – a deeply dangerous claim for which there is absolutely no evidence.
“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.”