How Jonathan Van-Tam won the nations trust on coronavirus – The Guardian

Health policy

Wryly ebullient deputy chief medical officer now seems to be TV’s ‘scientist of choice’

When the pandemic began, ministers settled on what they hoped was a reassuring combination for delivering advice to stay home and save lives: they turned to Prof Chris Whitty and the familiar, rumbling voice of the actor Mark Strong.

Eight months later, the chief medical officer and Hollywood star have been supplanted by a man who is junior to one and might be viewed as having less obvious charisma than the other.

But the public verdict is clear: Jonathan Van-Tam, the wryly ebullient deputy chief medical officer with a penchant for overworked metaphors and Boston United football club, appears to have won the nation’s trust.

And on Thursday, as the government began to roll out its vaccine communications strategy in earnest, he found himself moving from the cold gravity of the Downing Street briefing room to the warm but terrifying gaze of Holly and Phil.

Van-Tam’s elevation to “scientist of choice” to tour the TV studios and bring the government’s message about the importance and safety of vaccinations may, on its face, seem surprising.

Until this year, the closest brush with fame for the former editor of the journal Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses had come in the form of routine reminders to get a flu shot.

Nor does the bespectacled 56-year-old’s teacher-who’s-had-enough-of-3B-but-also-wants-to-get-to-the-pub manner immediately suggest him as a likely household name.

Nonetheless, it was Van-Tam who found himself touring BBC Breakfast, 5 Live and ITV’s This Morning.

A government insider quoted by Politico’s Playbook reflected: “JVT is definitely the most trusted and liked voice. People like Whitty’s wise man act. [Patrick] Vallance and Simon Stevens don’t come up on the radar. The less said about Jenny Harries the better.”

While that primacy is partly based on his sensible advice and willingness to break ranks when the time calls for it – on Wednesday he punctured Boris Johnson’s Panglossian optimism to suggest people may be wearing masks for years to come – it could be his way with words that has cemented his place in the public consciousness.

Addressing the public about the easing of lockdown in May, the professor pleaded: “Don’t tear the pants out of it.”

But he couples bracing clarity with a penchant for more allusive riffs: there have been glide paths, penalty shootouts and “the wait for a train on a windy night”.

In one press conference, when working from home, he decided to finish each of his answers with the word “over”, seeming more like a trawlerman radioing the harbour on a stormy night.

Meanwhile, he has been willing to eschew the formality that might be expected to go along with his job by framing his advice in thoroughly everyman terms.

On Thursday he returned to the familiar theme of the advice he would be giving his mother – get the vaccine as quickly as possible – and told his audience that she calls him “Jonny”. He also conjured a new bit of football imagery with something twisty but effective about 70th-minute equalisers and the need for the country to nick a late winner, and he suggested Father Christmas would be at the front of the vaccine queue.

It remains to be seen whether the man who may now have supplanted the comedian Robert Webb as Boston’s most famous son will be content to return to the relative obscurity of officialdom.

If not, Strong, the star of the Kingsman franchise, might be well advised to seek a word with his agent.

So might Matthew McConaughey: this week he found himself five places below Van Tam in Grazia magazine’s “chart of lust”.