Jonathan Van-Tam: who is the deputy chief medical officer, what did he say about masks - and funniest comments

The influenza expert has earned a cult following for his novel use of analogies and metaphors

Friday, 4th December 2020, 1:38 pm

Like Professor Chris Whitty and Sit Patrick Vallance, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam has become a household name in the UK.

Since the pandemic took hold in March, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer has been a regular sight on UK TV screens, regularly appearing alongside government ministers at coronavirus press briefings.

Typically dressed in a pin-striped suit and armed with obscure analogies to help explain the virus, the epidemiologist has become something of a social media icon for his performances at the daily press briefings.

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Jonathan Van-Tam has regularly appeared on UK TV screens isnce the beginning of the pandemic (Getty Images)

Here’s everything you need to know about the Deputy CMO.

Who is Jonathan Van-Tam?

Jonathan Stafford Nguyen Van-Tam MBE is a specialist in influenza with a history of working in the military before working with the government.

His expertise in influenza extends to the virus’ epidemiology, transmission, as well as vaccinology, antiviral drugs and pandemic preparedness. He also holds clinical experience in emergency medicine, anaesthesia, general medicine and infectious diseases.

Van-Tam graduated from the University of Nottingham in medicine in 1987 and was hired as senior lecturer ten years later.

Van-Tam served with the Lincolnshire Army Cadet Force, earning an MBE in 1998 for designing and developing medical kit used for large groups of teenagers on camping expeditions.

From 2000 to 2004 Van-Tam worked in the pharmaceutical and vaccines industries, first with SmithKline Beecham and then with Roche Products Ltd and Sanofi-Pasteur MSD.

In 2004 he became Consultant Epidemiologist and Head of the Pandemic Influenza Office at the UK Health Protection Agency.

From 2014 to 2017 he served as Chair of UK New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threat Advisory Group (NERVTAG).

Since 2017 Van-Tam has served as a Deputy CMO.

Jonathan Van-Tam’s grandfather Nguyen Van Tam, nicknamed the Tiger of Cai Lậy, served as Prime Minister of Vietnam.

In his spare time Van-Tam supports National League North side Boston United.

What did he say about masks?

Speaking at the Downing Street press conference on December 2, Prof Van-Tam said: “Do I think there will come a big moment where we have a massive party and throw our masks and hand sanitiser and say, ‘That’s it, it’s behind us’, like the end of the war? No, I don’t.

“I think those kind of habits that we have learned from… will perhaps persist for many years, and that may be a good thing if they do.”

But Mr Johnson responded: “And maybe… on the other hand, we may want to get back to life as pretty much as close to normal.”

Mr Van-Tam concluded by saying: “I do like to be challenged when I have, perhaps, not made myself clear, and the Prime Minister has picked me up on this occasion, and it’s quite alright because it gives me a chance to clarify what I mean here.

“I do not think the Government will continue to have to recommend social distancing, masks, and hand sanitiser forever and a day.

“I hope we will get back to a much more normal world.

“But the point I was trying to make was – do I think, possibly, some of those personal habits for some people will persist longer and, perhaps, become enduring for some people, yes, I think that’s possible.”

After clarifying that the professor meant the habits as seen in the “Far East”, Mr Johnson said: “Well, who knows?”

Professor Van-Tam’s best metaphors and analogies

The penalty shootout

Prof Van-Tam turned to sport and the agonising example of penalties to express the importance of vaccine breakthroughs.

Last month, suggesting it was not yet known how the Pfizer vaccine would affect transmission of the virus, he went to great metaphorical lengths to play down the hope and excitement.

“So this is like… getting to the end of the playoff 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.”

Holding on for the win

In what sounded almost like a cross between football commentary and punditry, Prof Van-Tam said on Thursday it is 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.

The glide path

Prof Van-Tam has also compared the progress on a vaccine to the tricky “glide path” of a plane coming into land.

He told a press briefing last month: “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 the platform

Prof Van-Tam said the whole process is similar to what so many Brits have been familiar with for years – 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.

Warming to the theme, he 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.”