Watch: Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne urged anti-vaxxers to 'persist' against COVID restrictions
Conservative MP Sir Desmond Swayne has refused to apologise after telling vaccine sceptics to “persist” with their campaign against coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
Backbencher Swayne, a lockdown sceptic who earlier this month was one of 16 MPs to vote against England’s third national lockdown becoming law, claimed there was a “monstrous distortion” of what he said.
Sky News obtained comments Swayne made in November to Save Our Rights UK, a group which argues wrongly that vaccines are “being rushed through safety testing” and has posted discussions online with conspiracy theorist David Icke.
He said the UK’s coronavirus figures have been “manipulated”, incorrectly stated the UK’s deaths were “typical for this time of year” and told the group his advice was to “persist”.
Amid widespread condemnation on Thursday – including senior cabinet member Michael Gove calling for him to issue a full retraction and apologise for his “unacceptable” comments – Swayne refused to apologise.
In an interview with PA, Swayne claimed “he had no idea... of any baggage [Save Our Rights UK] hold on anti-vaxx” and that he was telling the group to “persist” in its campaign against restrictions.
In another interview with ITV News, 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."
Swayne added he has been “banging the drum for vaccination”, and that his only regrets are “about the furore and being the centre of a news story”.
The Conservative Party has declined to suspend Swayne over his remarks.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner demanded that Boris Johnson takes action against him for “endorsing dangerous anti-vaccination campaigners, spreading disinformation and promoting conspiracy theories”.
But asked about Swayne during a visit to Scotland, the prime minister said he had not seen the remarks.
Meanwhile, Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, which has been investigating online misinformation about coronavirus and vaccines, said Swayne’s words had given “legitimacy to crank anti-vaxxers”.
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown