Senior Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne has refused to apologise for telling vaccine sceptics to "persist" with their campaign against coronavirus lockdown restrictions, arguing he was unaware of their position on jabs.
Cabinet member Michael Gove told the former minister to retract his remarks and apologise on Thursday, in condemning his Conservative colleague as "completely out of order".
The Conservative Party has declined to suspend the lockdown-sceptic over his remarks, or for a separate interview with anti-vaxxer Del Bigtree, and it is understood he will be asked to attend meetings with scientific advisers.
Sir Desmond, in comments reported by Sky News, told the Save Our Rights UK group, which argues wrongly that vaccines are "being rushed through safety testing", that some Covid-19 figures had been "manipulated" and called on them to "persist" in their campaign.
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 the 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 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, but insisted they should stick to the rules.
Earlier, Mr Gove called for the New Forest West MP 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mistake and an apology will be forthcoming," says Michael Gove – when asked if Sir Desmond Swayne should have the whip withdrawn for claiming NHS stats were manipulated.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 News: "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 if he thinks be kicked out of Tory party if he does not apology, 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."
Dozens of arrests have taken place during marches against lockdown restrictions organised by Save Our Rights UK.
The group also takes controversial views on vaccines, falsely claiming they are "being rushed through safety testing" despite rigorous trials and pushing doubts about the jabs.
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
Sky News reported that in November Sir Desmond told the group that 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 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, the broadcaster reported.
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
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner wrote to Conservative Party chairwoman Amanda Milling demanding action is taken against Sir Desmond.
Ms Rayner said the Tory MP "endorsed conspiracy theories about the veracity of the disease" and made a "deeply dangerous claim" about official figures.
"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," the Labour MP added.
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
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".