Senior Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne has refused to apologise for telling vaccine sceptics to "persist" with their campaign against coronavirus lockdown restrictions, arguing that he was unaware of their position on jabs.
Cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Priti Patel both called for him to withdraw his remarks, which included a claim that coronavirus data had been "manipulated".
Mr Gove condemned his Conservative colleague as "completely out of order" while Ms Patel said he was "thoroughly wrong".
But despite the two Cabinet ministers condemning Sir Desmond, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed not to be aware of the remarks.
Sky is wrong. Aside from my question to the PM this afternoon, an examination of my blogs will reveal that I am a most enthusiastic vaccinator
— Desmond Swayne (@DesmondSwayne) January 27, 2021
The Conservative Party has declined to suspend the lockdown-sceptic MP but it is understood he will be asked to attend meetings with scientific advisers.
Sir Desmond told the Save Our Rights UK group, which argues wrongly that vaccines are "being rushed through safety testing" and has posted discussions online with conspiracy theorist David Icke, that some Covid-19 figures have been "manipulated" and called on campaigners to "persist" in their campaign.
He also gave an interview to anti-vaxxer Del Bigtree, in which he claimed the UK had become a "police state".
In an interview with the PA news agency, the New Forest West MP said he is "evangelical" in his support for the vaccination programme and pointed out that he is on record as criticising the use of data and other health measures in the House of Commons.
"I have always had a great deal of respect for Michael (Gove) but I'm not sure precisely what I'm being asked to apologise for," Sir Desmond said.
"I had no idea, indeed I am not aware, of any baggage they hold on anti-vaxx, it's never been discussed, never been raised."
He said he was telling the campaigners to "persist" in the campaign against restrictions, in comments first reported by Sky News, but insisted they should stick to the rules.
Mr Gove called for Sir Desmond to issue a full retraction and apologise for his "unacceptable" comments.
"I'm sure that he will be very clear that it was a serious mistake and an apology will be forthcoming," says Michael Gove – when asked if Sir Desmond Swayne should have the whip withdrawn for claiming NHS stats were manipulated.
— Sky News (@SkyNews) January 28, 2021
The senior Cabinet minister told Sky: "Sir Desmond is wrong.
"I work with Sir Desmond, I have great affection for him, but I'm afraid here he is completely out of order."
Pressed on if he thinks the MP should be kicked out of the Tory Party if he does not apologise, Mr Gove said: "I think it's for Sir Desmond to make that apology to retract and withdraw his words and I'm sure he will reflect on that mistake and I'm sure he will be very clear it was a serious mistake and an apology will be forthcoming."
Later, Home Secretary Ms Patel said: "I think Desmond should apologise, absolutely, and he should retract the comments he has made.
"Too many people have died from this deadly, deadly virus.
"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's comments were reported on Wednesday night and Mr Gove was able to address them on Thursday morning.
This afternoon, I pressed the PM to focus exclusively on the progress of vaccinations of those most likely to be hospitalised if infected as a means to end lockdown. Mission creep beyond hospitalisations will undermine the sense of urgency to lift restrictions. pic.twitter.com/mzhojdqhe1
— Desmond Swayne (@DesmondSwayne) January 27, 2021
But Mr Johnson, speaking to reporters on a visit to Scotland several hours after Mr Gove's breakfast time interviews, said he was not aware of Sir Desmond's comments.
"I'm sorry, I haven't seen those," he said.
Dozens of arrests have taken place during marches against lockdown restrictions organised by Save Our Rights UK.
The group also holds controversial views on vaccines, falsely claiming they are "being rushed through safety testing" despite rigorous trials, and pushing doubts about the jabs.
In November, Sir Desmond reportedly told the group the figures were "bouncing round at the typical level of deaths for the time of year".
"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," he said.
"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."
This month, Sir Desmond told US anti-vaxxer Mr Bigtree that Government was attempting to implement "social control" through actions such as the mandatory wearing of face masks, the broadcaster reported.
I have written to @Conservatives Party Chair @amandamilling regarding a Conservative MP telling anti-vaccination campaigners to "persist" with their campaign against COVID restrictions and suggesting that NHS data is being "manipulated".
Urgent action must be taken. pic.twitter.com/qH1Uye5m8d
— Angela Rayner 😷 (@AngelaRayner) January 27, 2021
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner demanded that Mr Johnson takes action against Sir Desmond for "endorsing dangerous anti-vaccination campaigners, spreading disinformation and promoting conspiracy theories".
A spokesman 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."
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".