Rees-Mogg apologises after comparing no-deal medical expert to anti-vaxxer

Leader of Commons acts after pressure from colleagues and medical profession over attack on David Nicholl

The leading Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg has apologised after comparing a consultant who helped draw up no-deal medical plans to the disgraced anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield.

The leader of the Commons acted late on Thursday evening under intense pressure from the medical profession, as well as Westminster colleagues. In an unprecedented move, England’s most senior doctor condemned Rees-Mogg over the comments, calling them “disrespectful”.

The criticism from Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, came after the doctor concerned, David Nicholl, said he would sue Rees-Mogg if he repeated the comments outside parliament.

The Brexiter had told MPs that, in warning about the possible effects of a no-deal Brexit on medical supplies, Nicholl was being as irresponsible as Wakefield, who was struck off the medical register in 2010 after suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Downing Street had distanced itself from Rees-Mogg’s remarks about Nicholl, a consultant neurologist who drew up a risk register of epilepsy and neurology drugs for the government’s Operation Yellowhammer no-deal plans.

Nicholl said Rees-Mogg had abused parliamentary privilege, under which MPs cannot be sued for comments made in the Commons. Standing outside the Commons, he commandeered the megaphone used by the anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray to hit back at Rees-Mogg and challenged him to repeat his claims outside parliament. “I will sue him,” Nicholl said. “This is nothing really to do with Brexit. This is about the bullying of any experts and bullying of whistleblowers.”

In other news, Dr David Nicholl has taken to College Green with a message for Jacob-Rees Mogg...asks him to repeat his earlier comments outside the House of Commons, and if he does, Nicholl says “I will sue” pic.twitter.com/O9gZM69jqp

— ollie cole (@ProducerOllie) September 5, 2019

Finally, on Thursday evening, Rees-Mogg caved in to the pressure and released a statement that read: “I apologise to Dr Nicholl for the comparison with Dr Wakefield. I have the utmost respect for all of the country’s hardworking medical professionals and the work they do in caring for the people of this country.

“The government is working closely with the NHS, industry and distributors to help ensure the supply of medicine and medical products remains uninterrupted once we leave the EU on 31 October, whatever the circumstances.”

Afterwards, Nicholl tweeted that he accepted the apology. He said of Rees-Mogg: “Hopefully he will reflect on his choice of words better the next time. I would be grateful if he could address this in the [House of Commons], where his comments were first made.”

After Rees-Mogg’s apology, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, stepped in to “stick up for doctors”.

One of my jobs as Health Secretary is to stick up for doctors. It's vital clinicians can provide expert advice. I defend to the hilt the right of clinicians and civil servants to provide advice without fear or favour. I’m glad Jacob has apologisedhttps://t.co/f47dVYJGLi

— Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) September 5, 2019

Rees-Mogg’s comments, made as he addressed the Commons during his duties as the leader of the house, had provoked gasps from the opposition benches and were condemned by the chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) and several MPs.

In a letter to Rees-Mogg, Davies said she felt “compelled to express my sincere disappointment in the disrespectful way you spoke to and about Dr David Nicholl”.

David Nicholl
David Nicholl drew up a risk register of epilepsy and neurology drugs for the government’s Operation Yellowhammer no-deal plans. Photograph: WENN Rights Ltd/Alamy

Comparing him to Wakefield “is going too far and is frankly unacceptable”, she said, adding: “Doctors are amongst the most trusted people in our country; it is always worth listening to what they have to say with respect.”

The pair first clashed on Monday on LBC radio when Nicholl challenged Rees-Mogg to say how many people he would accept could die because of a lack of access to drugs and radioactive isotopes. Rees-Mogg called Nicholl “deeply irresponsible” and said his comments were “typical of remain campaigners”.

In the Commons on Thursday, Labour’s shadow leader of the Commons, Valerie Vaz, raised the comments, saying: “I think the leader of the house owes an apology to Dr David Nicholl.”

Rees-Mogg said no-deal preparations were in place and added: “But yes, a lot of remainers wish to make our skin crawl. And I’m afraid it seems to me that Dr David Nicholl is as irresponsible as Dr Wakefield.”

He continued: “What he had to say – I will repeat it – is as irresponsible as Dr Wakefield, in threatening that people will die because we leave the European Union. What level of irresponsibility was that?”

Nicholl told the Guardian: “I would have happily have forgiven him his response on Monday on LBC, given that I was sprung on him by the radio station. But in this case he has used his parliamentary privilege to bully me. Fundamentally, this is about experts giving advice to the government and then being ignored and derided.”

A Downing Street spokeswoman said of Rees-Mogg’s comments in parliament: “The prime minister does not share this view. What is important is that patients can be fully reassured that the government is making all necessary preparations for Brexit on 31 October. This includes taking steps to ensure the supply of medicines and medical products remains uninterrupted.”

Helena McKeown, the chair of the BMA, said in a tweet that it was “dangerous behaviour by Jacob Rees-Mogg, slandering the highly respected NHS consultant and whistleblower David Nicholl”.

Alistair Burt, the ex-Foreign Office and health minister who was among 21 Conservative MPs to lose the party whip this week after rebelling over Brexit, said: “As a former minister fully aware of the worldwide risks to health security from Wakefield’s anti-vax consequences, I am distressed such a comparison could come from a government minister in the UK.”

The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said Rees-Mogg’s comments were “offensive, irresponsible garbage”. He tweeted: “His casual belittling of experienced, medical opinion really is shameful and straight out of the Trump playbook.”

Sarah Wollaston, the former GP who left the Conservatives and now sits as a Liberal Democrat, tweeted: “Absolutely disgusting for Jacob Rees-Mogg to slander such a highly respected NHS consultant and whistleblower … from behind the cowardly screen of parliamentary privilege.”

Phillip Lee, another doctor turned MP, who quit the Conservatives for the Liberal Democrats this week, called the comments “shocking and ignorant”. He said: “He should apologise in the house for impugning the professional reputation of an experienced medical consultant.”

Contributors

Lisa O'Carroll , Peter Walker and Kevin Rawlinson

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