From red cards to horse races – Sir Jonathan Van-Tam’s top analogies

The departure of England’s deputy chief medical officer will bring an end to his famous use of metaphors to explain the pandemic

Sophie Wingate
Thursday 13 January 2022 11:36
Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam has gained public affection for his use of analogies to explain coronavirus (PA)
Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam has gained public affection for his use of analogies to explain coronavirus (PA)

England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam is to leave his role at the end of March.

Sir Jonathan, widely known as JVT, has gained public affection for delivering health messages with a dose of humour and colourful analogies.

Many will miss his use of metaphors and similes involving trains, planes and penalty shootouts to explain coronavirus to the public at Covid briefings.

We are probably in the last few furlongs of this race – like in the Grand National

Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam

Here are some of the medical chief’s top analogies:

‘Red card’ warning

Sir Jonathan, a keen football fan, urged people to help avoid a “red card” from the Omicron coronavirus variant in November.

He compared the situation to a football team where two key players had received a yellow card.

He said the rest of the team had to “up their game” to prevent going down to 10 players – suggesting that in this case that meant getting a booster jab.

He told a Downing Street press conference that the initial vaccine was like having a full-strength team on the pitch and despite being weakened by injuries – the Alpha and Delta variants – substitutes had been able to “keep us in the game”.

He said: “Omicron is like now picking up a couple of yellow cards to key players on top.

“We may be ok but we’re kind of starting to feel at risk that we might go down to 10 players and if that happens – or it’s a risk that’s going to happen – then we need everyone on the pitch to up their game in the meantime.”

He added: “We’re not going to wait for the red card to happen, we are going to act decisively now and we’re asking everyone to up their game, we’re asking everyone to play their part in the urgency now of the booster programme, coming forward the moment you are called by the NHS.”

Sir Jonathan previously compared the pandemic to the Grand National (PA)

Grand National

Sir Jonathan previously compared the pandemic to the famous horse race held annually at Aintree in Liverpool, warning the country must not fall at the final fence.

Speaking to The Sun, he said: “The vaccine effects are going to take three months until we see them properly, and until then no one can relax.

“We are probably in the last few furlongs of this race – like in the Grand National. We just have a couple more fences, we have just got to stick with it.”


Sir Jonathan 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.

“You haven’t won the cup yet, but what it does is, it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.”

Sir Jonathan, left, became well-known for using light-hearted analogies to explain complex scientific issues at Covid briefings (Toby Melville/PA)

Holding on for the win

In a football commentary-style remark about the pandemic, Sir Jonathan 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

Sir Jonathan 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.”

He 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.”

Sir Jonathan said the pandemic is similar to waiting to board a crowded train (PA)

Waiting on a railway platform

Sir Jonathan 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.

“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.

Sir Jonathan 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.”

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