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Professor Jonathan Van-Tam: The Most Trusted Man in Britain

Posted by Caribbean World Magazine on 2 March 2021 | 0 Comments

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2 March 2021

Epidemiology expert Professor Jonathan Van-Tam has emerged as an unlikely cult hero, winning the nation's trust on coronavirus with his touch of the everyman and love of metaphorical analogies

By Sarah Woods

Unlike Boris, he is calm and unflappable, speaking firmly yet softly with absolute clarity.  Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam - or ‘JVT’ - as he is affectionately known by his legions of admirers, has earned his place as the TV’s ‘scientist of Choice’. PM Johnson even refers to him by the acronym during broadcasts from Downing Street. 

Professor Van-Tam’s easy way with words has cemented his place in the public consciousness during the pandemic. We like him. We understand him. We respect his honesty. And we trust him. As the public face of the UK vaccination programme, 'JVT' has become a figure of hope and his fondness for analogies have seen the audience of the PM’s regular TV National Briefing has taken him to its heart. Look online and you’ll find a booming ‘JVT’ merchandising market, from t-shirts to mugs and posters. A newly-created  ‘JVT’ Appreciation Society has a rapidly growing membership on Facebook - 2.8k at last count but rising fast. 

While many of Van-Tam’s colleagues have favoured a slightly more dispassionate and clinical approach at the podium, the 56-year-old from the sleepy Lincolnshire town of Boston has endeared himself to the watching public by highlighting the personal impact of the coronavirus. His answers have been peppered with references to his hobbies, his ethnicity and his mother. “I think the ‘mum test’ is very important here,” he told the Downing Street vaccine briefing one Wednesday. “My mum is 78, she will be 79 shortly, and I have already said to her:‘Mum, make sure when you are called you are ready, be ready to take this up, this is really important for you because of your age’.” 

Prof Van-Tam was appointed deputy CMO for England in October 2017 following a career which included time in the pharmaceutical and vaccines industries, as well as being a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). However, the epidemiology expert has become a household name during the most severe months of the Coronavirus pandemic, appearing on TV in his trademark pinstripe suits and crisply ironed shirts,distilling complex science into language the ordinary layman can better understand. Other than his charming penchant for metaphors, which he uses to convey the most vital of the scientific messages, another of his traits is the style in which he marks the end of his cautious and sagely input in the Government briefings with “over” – a sign which is being routinely copied now all over the UK. A passionate football fan, Professor Van-Tam is a Boston United season ticket holder, and his favourite sport gets plenty of mentions in his analogy-filled explanations.

“So this is like … getting to the end of the play-off final, it’s gone to penalties, the first player goes up and scores a goal. You haven’t won the cup yet, but what it does is, it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.”

In another, he described the whole process, from a potential vaccine being discovered to its roll-out as like waiting for a train in the wind and rain:

“I hope there’s not an unholy scramble for the seats,” he said,”......people need the seats most and they are the ones who should get on the train first.”

Yet this quietly spoken, erudite communicator also won considerable respect when, unlike the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, he was prepared to tell a Downing Street press conference in May 2020, his feeling on the Dominic Cummings lockdown furore. Cummings, a special advisor to the PM had clearly broken lockdown rules - to the outrage of the British public who were at home complying with strict conditions - yet he repeatedly refused to apologise. Of this, JVT spoke unequivocally, saying:

“In my opinion the rules are clear and they have always been clear. “They are for the benefit of all - and they apply to all.”

Prof Van-Tam has also been able to speak from personal experience about the disproportionate impact the coronavirus is having on the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) community. As data on BAME Covid-19 deaths began to emerge, he acknowledged his own Vietnamese heritage and admitted to being seriously concerned about reticence in some Asian cultures regarding vaccination.

During press briefings concerning the vaccine roll out, JVT was in ebullient mood, pledging his own personal commitment to the roll out (he has since worked as a volunteer at a Nottingham community centre dispensing coronavirus jabs to the most vulnerable. Meantime, in London, Van-Tam remains the British PM’s go-to man for in-depth scientific explanations with internal polling conducted by the government showing clearly that he is the most trusted person to communicate the risks. The British public respect the scientist and is honest reporting of the facts and prefer his delivery over that of politicians, because JVT offers zero spin. The Professor himself, it seems, is relaxed about public perception - colleagues admit that he is “more interested in explaining what is going on than being famous.”

So who is JVT?

Jonathan Van-Tam grew up in Lincolnshire and attended Boston Grammar School where his father was a teacher. He graduated from the University of Nottingham in 1987 and has since had an illustrious career in public health and medicine, including returning to the university as a Clinical Senior Lecturer in 1997 and as a Clinical Professor of Health Protection in 2007.His roles have also included Consultant Epidemiologist and Head of the Pandemic Influenza Office at the UK Health Protection Agency in 2004 and chairman of the UK New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threat Advisory Group (NERVTAG) from 2014 to 2017.

He has also at several points advised the World Health Organisation and the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. He was given an MBE in 1998’s New Year’s Honours for his work designing medical kits for large groups of teenagers on camping expeditions.

He had worked with the Lincolnshire Army Cadets since 1988.

As Deputy Chief Medical Officer JVT is part of a team of three that supports the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) in their role as independent adviser to government on medical matters and the Head of Profession for all directors of public health in local government. In his spare time, Mr Van Tam is a dedicated supporter and season ticket holder of his home-town team Boston United, perhaps where he gets his football analogies from.

Today JVT is said to be the Most Trusted Man in Britain - and has been befriended by Larry, a brown-and-white tabby who has been a resident of No. 10 since 2001. Larry’s reputation as a good judge of character is formidable, and political folklore has it that a successful greeting from him is tantamount to an overarching blessing in politics. Larry’s endorsement of Jonathan as an authority with a style that would reach the British public turned out to be spot on - without the feline’s approval we wouldn’t have heard why Covid 19 is not like a yoghurt, and easy to understand lesson in the virus that was free from convoluted messaging. JVT readily admits to “road testing” his analogies on his wife (who he refers to as “Mrs VT”) and his mum (who he told TV viewers calls him “Jonny”) andrecently ranked 5 places higher than heartthrob actor Matthew McConaughey in Grazia magazine’s “chart of lust”.  When asked what the vaccine means to him, JVT is typically everyman, admitting that he is looking forward to returning to a life with a little normality - a sentiment the whole of Britain, if not the wider world, can whole heartedly relate to. And that is what makes him “Van-tastic”.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam –Biography

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam was appointed Deputy Chief Medical Officer in October 2017. He leads on health protection. 

Career highlights:

  • Clinical experience in emergency medicine, anaesthesia, general medicine and infectious diseases
  • Clinical academic training in public health medicine
  • Became Clinical Senior Lecturer at Nottingham in 1997
  • Worked in the pharmaceutical and vaccines industries from 2000 (SmithKline Beecham 2000 to 2001, Roche Products Ltd 2001 to 2002 and Sanofi-Pasteur MSD 2002 to 2004)
  • Became Consultant Epidemiologist and Head of the Pandemic Influenza Office at the UK Health Protection Agency in 2004
  • Returned to Nottingham in 2007 as Clinical Professor of Health Protection
  • Consultant to the World Health Organization on influenza since 2004
  • Sat on the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) during the 2009 to 2010 pandemic crisis and afterwards
  • Chair of UK New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threat Advisory Group (NERVTAG), 2014 to 2017

    Famous Professor Van-Tam Analogies

    When speaking with the BBC, Professor Van-Tam described his use of metaphors and analogies as “great” - “I love metaphors. Thing they bring complex stories to life for people,” he said.

    – Penalties

    Prof Van-Tam spoke about football penalty shootouts as he discussed vaccine breakthroughs.

    He was discussing how the Pfizer vaccine would affect transmission of the virus.

    “So this is like… getting to the end of the play-off final, it’s gone to penalties, the first player goes up and scores a goal.

    – Holding on for the win

    In a football commentary-style remark about the pandemic, Prof Van-Tam said it was clear that in the first half the away team “gave us an absolute battering”, but that an equalising goal was clinched in the 70th minute.

    “OK, we’ve got to hold our nerve now, see if we can get another goal and nick it.

    “But the key thing is not to lose it, not to throw it away at this point because we’ve got a point on the board, and we’ve got the draw,” the Boston United season ticket holder said.

    – Landing a plane

    Do I believe that we are now on the glide path to landing this plane? Yes I do. Prof Van-Tam has also compared the progress on a vaccine to a plane coming into land.

    He told a press briefing: “Do I believe that we are now on the glide path to landing this plane? Yes I do.”

    Prof Van-Tam added: “Do I accept that sometimes when you are on the glide path, you can have a side wind and the landing is not totally straightforward, totally textbook? Of course.”

    – Waiting on a railway platform

    Prof Van-Tam said the pandemic is similar to waiting to board a crowded train.

    “This to me is like a train journey, it’s wet, it’s windy, it’s horrible.

    “And two miles down the tracks, two lights appear and it’s the train and it’s a long way off and we’re at that point at the moment.

    “That’s the efficacy result.

    “Then we hope the train slows down safely to get into the station, that’s the safety data, and then the train stops.

    “And at that point, the doors don’t open, the guard has to make sure it’s safe to open the doors. That’s the MHRA, that’s the regulator,” he said.

    Prof Van-Tam added: “And when the doors open, I hope there’s not an unholy scramble for the seats.

    “The JCVI has very clearly said which people need the seats most and they are the ones who should get on the train first.”