Skip to main content
Close menu
Connect logo

The pandemic professor

We catch up with Nottingham's man of the pandemic, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam
Connect Features The pandemic professor

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam (Medicine, 1987), one of England’s three Deputy Chief Medical Officers, swiftly developed a reputation for his no-nonsense responses under the intense pressure of the media spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic.

His career may have taken an entirely different path had it not been for a stroke of fortune at the beginning of university life however.

Words: Chris Hickman

“I only got a place at Nottingham because somebody cancelled! My grades weren't quite good enough and I ended up getting literally the last place to get on the course that year.”

Thankfully for both the watching public and those inside Downing Street, Professor Van Tam subsequently made the most of his lucky break. His career encompasses the pharmaceutical giants SmithKline Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline), Roche and Sanofi-Pasteur, “spending a lot of time on anti-viral drugs and vaccines,” a stint as Head of the Pandemic Influenza Office at the UK Health Protection Agency (now Public Health England) and also a number of years lecturing here at Nottingham.

“All my career has built towards this kind of moment. My varied roles gave me the foundation and knowledge that I have needed to respond.”

‘This kind of moment’ looked like 16 hour days at the height of the pandemic, the majority of time spent either in meetings or preparing for said meetings, as well as directly advising ministers on what he calls “pandemic preparedness.” Crucially as we have all now understood the advice became something of a shield for ministers ‘following the science’, but Professor Van-Tam is adamant it isn’t so black and white.

“You've got to get through the mindset that science or clinical medicine is the only game in town. It's not when it comes to running the country and making complex and difficult decisions. Part of the skill I am still learning is when to stand and fight and when to understand that your advice is part of a bigger consideration a politician has to make.”

Of course his most famous moment came in the light of Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham with his diplomatic insistence that the rules “…are for the benefit of all. In my opinion they apply to all.” Was Professor Van-Tam prepared for such a grilling from the media?

“I didn't sign up to be on that podium at Number 10, in the spotlight with some, at times, quite aggressive journalism coming at you. But I do revel in the challenge of deconstructing the question and reconstructing the answer in a way which I hope people from all walks of life sat around their TVs can understand.

 

It really matters to me that people felt they weren't getting flannel or deflecting the questions, I was just taking them head on and if I didn't know the answer I'd just say so. It gave me a great deal of personal satisfaction to learn of the reaction from the public. I take pretty much the same approach with colleagues and Ministers – be polite, tell it straight, and always speak truth to power, never pull a punch.
Jonathan Van-Tam

Speaking of deflecting questions, Professor Van-Tam has been quoted as saying that things will ‘return to normal’ in the UK by next spring. Is this so?

“All of this is predicated on whether we can get to a point where there is a successful vaccine. Typically these projects each have about a 10% chance of success, which is why the UK has taken the position to back multiple vaccine manufacturers and multiple vaccine projects.

“I think there are some exceptional science talents out there developing vaccines and I am hopeful that if we don't get some small quantities of vaccine just before Christmas we will begin to get meaningful supplies between Christmas and Easter next year.”

And how to cope in periods of intense pressure? “The trick is not to get miserable and take pride in the fact that if you work until you drop, sleep, and then go again you're doing all you can possibly do to help.” You heard the professor.