Tory MP Desmond Swayne refuses to apologise for 'unacceptable' comments telling anti-lockdown protesters to 'persist'

Sir Desmond Swayne has refused to apologise for comments Michael Gove said were 'unacceptable'.

A Tory MP has refused to apologise for "out of order" comments in which he encouraged anti-lockdown campaigners to "persist" with their protests.

Senior Tory Desmond Swayne, who previously served as a aide to former PM David Cameron, told anti-lockdown group Save our Rights UK that NHS figures were being "manipulated" and intensive care units were actually running at normal capacity.

In a recording of a November interview with the campaign group, obtained by Sky News, Sir Desmond said coronavirus seems to pose a "manageable risk, particularly as figures have been manipulated" and figures were "bouncing round at the typical level of deaths for the time of year”.

At the time of the recording there were at least 6,817 more deaths in England and Wales than the average for the previous five years, and 18% of all deaths were coronavirus related, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Sir Desmond added: "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 goes on to tell the anti-lockdown group: "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."

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said the MP was "out of order" for making the "unacceptable" comments and urged him to issue a full retraction and apology.

The New Forest West MP told ITV News it is "monstrous" to suggest he was encouraging people to break the law or refuse a vaccine.

Asked if he would apologise, he said: "I need to be clear about what I'm being asked to apologise for because I suspect that what [Michael Gove is] referring to is the Sky News headline 'senior Tory tells anti-vaxxers to carry on' - they're indicating my support for anti-vaxxers.

"This is a monstrous distortion. I am evangelical in my support for vaccination."

He said if he were to have the whip removed for his comments, it would be "punishment for thought crime".

He told the PA news agency: "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.

"I'm evangelical in my support for the vaccination programme.

"As for my complaints for masking and the use of data, I'm on the record, I've said all of those things in the House of Commons.

He said he was telling the campaigners to "persist" in the campaign against restrictions, but insisted they should stick to the rules.

Boris Johnson, when asked about the remarks during a trip to Scotland, said he was not aware of the story and declined to comment.

But Home Secretary Priti Patel said that he should apologise and "look at the comments that have been made and take them back".

"He should retract the comments that he has made," she said. "He can see as along with all colleagues in politics, all public figures, anyone in public life but all members of the public can see as well the devastating impact of this disease."

She added: "Too many people have died from this deadly, deadly virus and too many people are in hospital, 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."

Sir Desmond says he is a "most enthusiastic vaccinator" but has been a frequent critic of the government's lockdown measures.

In a separate incident, Sir Desmond this month told US anti-vaxxer Del 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, Sky News said.

Sir Desmond told Sky News he does know who Mr Bigtree is, adding: "I'm entitled to answer legitimate questions that people put to me."

"It does not in any way mean that I accept points of view that they hold."

Cabinet Office minister Mr Gove declined to say that Sir Desmond should have the Conservative whip removed but added: "I would hope that he issues a full and complete retraction and apology for what he said - it's unacceptable."

He told ITV News that Chief Whip Mark Spencer had "made it clear that he'll be having a meeting with our scientific advisers who will be able to put him right on some of the things he's said".

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner has written to Conservative Party chairwoman Amanda Milling about Sir Desmond's comments.

She said the Tory MP "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.

"Following Desmond Swayne's shocking refusal to apologise for his behaviour, I urge you to make clear what action you will take. It is the duty of all of us to support the national effort to vaccinate Britain."

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".

"This MP's judgment needs to be seriously questioned when, by virtue of association, he lends legitimacy to crank anti-vaxxers and peddlers of falsehoods about Covid," Mr Ahmed said.

"When we wear a mask or get vaccinated, we don't just protect ourselves, we also protect those we love, the community we spend time in, and in turn help secure our country against coronavirus.

"While Covid continues to kill, turning science into a political football is a Trumpian act of grotesque irresponsibility."