Take your metaphorical pick: there’s the one where Jonathan Van-Tam (fondly known as JVT) compared the need to stick with restrictions to the Grand National. “We are probably in the last few furlongs of this race,” he said. “The vaccine effects are going to take three months until we see them properly, and until then no one can relax.”
Or, the one where he turned to football to convey the significance of the jabs in limiting 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,” he told the public. “You haven’t won the cup yet, but what it does is, it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.”
There have been other comments about yoghurt, trains, mountaineering – and even hosiery. Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam’s metaphors have become a distinct feature of the Covid landscape, and will be sorely missed now that he is stepping down from his position as England’s deputy chief medical officer.
For the public, he’s played a vital role in simplifying deeply complex scientific topics, bringing clarity and assurance at a time when hysteria has become par for the course.
He has never been one to sugar-coat the facts, but nor has he burdened the masses with pessimism and endless warnings of impending doom. Van-Tam has been clinical in his communications, yet has succeeded at weaving in flashes of humanity into his messages – at a time when other scientists around him have come across as almost robotic in demeanour.
In off-camera briefings with health and science journalists, he’s never been afraid to pack a punch. I remember one occasion in which he admonished us as a pack for questionable reporting, and warned that our words played an equally important role in helping to combat Covid. At the same time, though, he was always been accessible and endeavoured to labour every point until it became crystal clear.
Nor has JVT strayed into the murky world of politics. While other similarly high-profile experts have been accused of politicising policy and steering an agenda, Van-Tam has avoided such criticism – and rightly so. His priority has always been the British public, in helping us to understand the science and follow the guidance.
Of course, the timing of his departure raises questions in Whitehall. On secondment from the University of Nottingham since 2017, Van-Tam stands down at a time of acute crisis for the government, with the prime minister facing calls to resign for attending an illegal party in Downing Street in May 2020 – currently the subject of an investigation.
Insiders have insisted that Van-Tam’s departure is unrelated to partygate – but while this day was always coming, we can’t help but ask: “Why now? Why not hold off until the controversy passes?”
It well may be the case that, with the Omicron wave easing and signs of post-Covid life starting to emerge, Sir Jonathan feels as if his work is done.
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Alternatively, against the backdrop of an increasingly overwrought and discombobulated No 10, one that looks to have prioritised politics over public health throughout the pandemic, he may believe that there is simply no appetite left for the work he can offer.
Regardless, much in the same way that he has loyally stuck by his beloved minnows Boston United over several decades – a team languishing in the sixth tier of English football and beset by financial woes – so too has JVT stuck it out with this government.
Considering the cards he’s been dealt, and the ministers that he has been forced to work alongside, many of whom have repeatedly and publicly dismissed the words of wisdom offered by their scientific advisers; JVT has excelled – and we owe him our gratitude for that. He will be sorely missed by all.
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