The Conservative chief whip has spoken to MP Sir Desmond Swayne but stopped short of further disciplinary action after the backbencher refused to back down from baseless claims that NHS capacity figures had been manipulated to exaggerate the scale of the pandemic.
Swayne, a former minister, refused to apologise on Thursday after the emergence of a November interview in which he urged a fringe coronavirus deniers’ group, which has suggested the pandemic could be a hoax, to “persist” in protesting against lockdown.
The Save Our Rights UK group has also published videos promoting the theories of David Icke and Piers Corbyn, as well as an interview in which it is claimed that coronavirus is linked to the QAnon conspiracy and that Madonna revealed her awareness of the pandemic at the 2019 Eurovision song contest.
In a Sky News interview on Thursday, Swayne said the situation had “changed completely with the new variant”, but said his remarks in November were “perfectly legitimate at the time”. He earlier told TalkRadio’s Julia Hartley-Brewer: “We are getting very close to thought crime here, aren’t we?”
It is understood the chief whip, Mark Spencer, spoke to Swayne, 64, and that he has been told to meet government scientific advisers – but the party has stopped short of more significant sanctions.
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said that “after the Conservatives have refused to act”, the prime minister must “intervene urgently, condemn these comments and take action”.
It has emerged that Swayne also appeared on the Richie Allen Show, a radio programme broadcast from Salford that has previously featured multiple antisemites and Holocaust deniers. The campaign group Hope not Hate said Swayne had appeared alongside James Fetzer, a conspiracy theorist who co-edited a book entitled Nobody Died at Sandy Hook, referring to a US school shooting conspiracy theory.
On that programme, Swayne said: “There are huge question marks about the validity of the testing and some of the numbers we’ve been getting.”
No 10 has not yet commented on the affair. Speaking on Thursday morning, the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, told Sky News that Swayne was “out of order” and must apologise, saying: “I work with Sir Desmond, I have great affection for him but I’m afraid here he is completely out of order.”
Despite Swayne having already refused to apologise, Gove declined to commit his party to taking any further action, instead saying: “I would hope that he issues a full and complete retraction and apology for what he said – it’s unacceptable.”
Priti Patel, the home secretary, later also called on Swayne to apologise and retract his comments, which she said were “thoroughly wrong”.
Challenged on his interview with Save Our Rights UK and the risk that he could be endowing respectability to fringe positions, Swayne told the Guardian: “There is a danger of that and I have on occasion responded to a request for an interview and failed to have found out about exactly who they were interviewed by and what their line was and found myself uncomfortable in the interview.”
However, he added that he was “not sure” if he would count Save Our Rights UK in that category.
In the interview, first reported by Sky News, Swayne falsely claimed the number of people in intensive care wards was broadly normal and encouraged the group to persist with their campaign, which has become a haven for anti-vaxxers.
In reality, the UK has suffered the greatest number of excess deaths – those recorded above the five-year average – since the second world war.
Swayne claimed that criticism of him over the matter – and of another interview he gave to Del Bigtree, an anti-vaxxer and producer on Vaxxed, a 2016 film directed by the disgraced former GP Andrew Wakefield – was “disinformation that they’re spreading by lumping us all together when people have certainly legitimate points of view in a free society”.
While Save Our Rights UK has claimed not to oppose the vaccination programme per se, it has sought to sow mistrust in it by falsely equating the Covid vaccines, which have been put through large-scale human trials, with a jab that was subject to far less rigorous testing. The group has chosen to continue its campaign even as it has become a rallying point for overt anti-vaxxers.
Facebook, meanwhile, said it had removed videos highlighted by the Guardian making claims it concluded “could lead to imminent physical harm” including one in which Corbyn made the conspiratorial claim that “we’ve got to close down all the vax programmes now, they’re just to make money and to control you”, and said of coronavirus variants that “a mutant of nothing is nothing”.
In another video which was removed, the Save Our Rights UK organiser Vincent Dunmall makes the baseless claim that Madonna is guilty of “satanic representation” and nods as the YouTuber and DJ Mark Devlin says the star is a “lifetime actor” who revealed her awareness of the coming “scamdemic” in her appearance at the 2019 Eurovision song contest.
In a third, which the social network concluded did not pose an imminent risk of harm, Dunmall’s co-organiser, Louise Creffield, nods as Icke says: “It’s important that people don’t think this is just some random series of events caused by some ‘virus’ … this script that’s now unfolding goes back a very, very long time.”