A doctor who spoke out against the government’s no-deal plans has said Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg is “bullying whistleblowers”.
David Nicholl expressed concern over medical plans for a no-deal Brexit during a radio phone-in this week.
On Thursday, Mr Rees-Mogg told MPs that Dr Nicholl was “as irresponsible as Dr [Andrew] Wakefield”, who inaccurately linked the MMR vaccine with autism.
The Conservative MP later apologised to Dr Nicholl for making the comparison.
The British Medical Association called Mr Rees-Mogg’s comments “irresponsible”.
Dr Nicholl, a consultant neurologist with Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust, shared his concerns about the supply of drugs in the event of a no-deal Brexit in an interview with BBC Newsnight in March.
And on Monday he called in to LBC to ask Mr Rees-Mogg what mortality rate he would accept if the UK were to leave the EU without a deal.
Mr Rees-Mogg said this was “the worst excess of Project Fear” and the doctor should be “quite ashamed”.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday, Mr Rees-Mogg referred to the exchange when challenged about preparations for leaving the EU without a deal.
“Preparations have been made, they are in place and they have been done with remarkable efficiency, but a lot of remainers wish to make our skins crawl,” he said.
“I’m afraid it seems to me that Dr David Nicholl is as irresponsible as Dr Wakefield.
“What he [Nicholl] 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?”
In response, Dr Nicholl said he was “appalled” by the comments and visited Westminster to call on the MP to apologise.
He added that the remarks were “an attempt by government to bully whistleblowers, and it’s not just doctors.”
“I challenge him to repeat outside the chamber the allegation that I am comparable to Andrew Wakefield – let’s see what happens.”
As an MP, Mr Rees-Mogg cannot be sued for any comments he makes during his duties in the House of Commons.
But on Thursday evening, the MP for North East Somerset, apologised to Dr Nicholl for his comments in the Commons.
In a statement he said he had “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.”
He added that the government was “working closely with the NHS, industry and distributors to help ensure the supply of medicine and medical products remains uninterrupted” by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
What were Dr Nicholl’s concerns?
By Newsnight correspondent Deborah Cohen
Dr Nicholl came to Newsnight in March with his concerns about the inability to stockpile medicines for conditions such as epilepsy, neuropathic pain and bipolar disorder in the event of no-deal Brexit.
He was neurology lead for Brexit planning and gave us NHS England documents. He said it was his duty as a doctor to speak up over concerns about patient safety.
A range of health organisations supported him, telling the BBC there needed to be transparency about supplies. Unavailability of certain drugs may affect doctors’ decisions about what to prescribe.
His concerns were later supported by Operation Yellowhammer – the leaked government report describing the possible consequences of leaving without a deal – which said there may be significant disruption to medicines supplies lasting up to six months.
In response to the row, the Chief Medical Officer for England, Prof Sally Davies, has written to Mr Rees-Mogg to express her “sincere disappointment in the disrespectful way” he spoke to and about Dr David Nicholl.
In the letter, she said that Brexit “obviously divides opinion” but that comparing Dr Nicholl to Dr Wakefield is “going too far and is frankly unacceptable”.
She thanked Dr Nicholl for his help in planning for no-deal and added that “there are now full plans in place that we believe, if enacted to plan, should ensure unhindered medical supplies”.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the British Medical Association, said Mr Rees-Mogg’s “unwarranted attack” was “utterly disgraceful and totally irresponsible”.
“Highly experienced doctors like David Nicholl who decide to speak out about risks to life and patient care, should be supported and listened to, not attacked and derided by those who hold positions of responsibility.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth criticised Mr Rees-Mogg’s comments, describing them on Twitter as “offensive, irresponsible garbage”.
He added: “His casual belittling of experienced, medical opinion really is shameful and straight out of the Trump playbook.”
Alistair Burt, who was one of 21 MPs who lost the Tory whip after they rebelled against the party, said: “The Brexit obsession is giving rise to sheer irrationality.”
He added: “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.”