Tory MP Desmond Swayne has refused to apologise for spreading Covid disinformation and claimed it would be a “thought crime” for him to lose the party whip.
The MP for New Forest West has attracted widespread condemnation after giving an interview to Del Bigtree, a “dangerous” US anti-vaxxer, claiming the UK had become a “a police state” attempting “social control” with pandemic restrictions.
In a separate interview with the UK group Save Our Rights in November, the former minister claimed Covid-19 infection and mortality figures had been “manipulated” and that deaths were “bouncing round at the typical level of deaths for the time of year”.
He faces calls from Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove to apologise and Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner has called on Boris Johnson to take action.
This week, there was further evidence that the UK is in fact one of the countries worst-hit by the virus in the world, as Covid deaths surpassed 100,000. There are around 37,000 people in hospital as the new variant, which first emerged in Kent in November, continues to have a devastating impact.
But, in an interview with Sky News on Thursday, lockdown-sceptic Swayne doubled down on his actions.
Asked by Adam Boulton if he regretted agreeing to the interviews and “lending credibility” to anti-vaxxers, he said: “I certainly regret the fuss that they have caused and being at the centre of a media storm.”
He said the views he shared criticising lockdown and government scientists’ use of data were “legitimate” and “widely held views” at the time.
Asked if he would apologise for “fake news”, he said: “No, the complaint was legitimate at the time: the way that statistics were being presented, even if subsequently deaths have ballooned which they have, those comments at the time were perfectly legitimate.”
Swyane said he was prepared to meet with the government’s scientific advisers, including chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance.
But when pressed over whether he could lose the Conservative Party whip, he said: “That would be thought crime.”
Claiming he had been “evangelical” in his support of vaccines, he said of the two interviews: “I don’t believe I have given them credibility. I spoke to them on the issue of lockdown. We didn’t touch on the issue of vaccinations.”
Asked if he would agree to another interview with the anti-vaxxers, he said: “I would be rather cautious about that.”
Turning to anti-vaxxers in the UK, who have entered hospitals and claimed Covid does not exist, Swayne said: “I think they’re nutty. It’s clear there is Covid, it’s clear that we have a major health problem but I dispute the chosen policies that we have dealt with it.”
Pressed again over whether he would say sorry, Swayne said it was “not clear what I am being asked to apologise for” and that any claim he asked anti-vaxxers to “carry on” was a “monstrous distortion of the truth”.
Rayner said that Swayne had been “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 spokesperson 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.”