‘We haven’t finished the job’: JVT reflects on 18 months of Covid

They did not ask for the spotlight and they sometimes didn't feel at home under the media spotlight.
The scientists who first came into our world at the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic were household names. No one more than Prof Jonathan Van-Tam.

JVT is the only one with a nickname.

One of the few with a unique way with words. Some of his words are strung together to create a variety of bewildering analogies and metaphors.

Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer, reflected on the past 18 months in an exclusive interview with The Guardian He gave a warning, made a promise, and finally admitted. He also looked ahead.

Van-Tam will present the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for this year's class, following the example of Sir David Attenborough and Dame Nancy Rothwell, who started the tradition in 1825.

Van-Tam speaks at a virtual conference about the Covid-19 vaccine programme. Photograph by Reuters

Van-Tam is proud that he was asked. However, he also has pressing concerns.

He said that we were still in the pandemic phase. The period of significant hazard will continue for several months, I believe. It would be wrong to think that we are in a comfortable place until this winter is over and we move into spring.

He said, "That's my greatest concern. People just relax and believe this is it." Sorted. I'm not sure where it is. It would be wonderful if it was, [if] it continues to glide along in an enjoyable manner. I am still cautious about the possibility of more twists and turning with this virus.

Van-Tam may conjure a metaphor.

Although it seems like there is an express train traveling down the east coast mainline to reach the final destination, the actual destination is actually Scotland. As you travel down the rail journey, your speed decreases, they become more twisty and turning, and there are many false endings. It's a bit like that, we've done a lot of mainline travel but we aren't done.

The professor changed his mind and compared the situation to climbing Scafell Pike.

There are many false summits. They are a lot of work to reach them and once you do, you feel great. You realize that there is more to the mist, and there's more. This stage is where we really test our endurance and our ability keep our eyes on the prize.

Van-Tam insists that he doesn't rehearse these metaphors and isn't sure where they came from. They are mostly off the cuff. They are just out there in my headspace.

He is not a fan of disinformation spreading by celebrities, but he does agree with Prof Chris Whitty as chief medical officer.

Whitty was the one who called out Nicki. According to the rapper, Whitty told her Twitter followers that her cousin from Trinidad refused to receive the Covid-19 vaccine after his friend had it. He then became incompetent with swollen testicles and was unable to work.

Van-Tam again seeks an analogy.

Don't take your gaming computer to a plumber if it develops a fault. Ask them to fix it. You should find someone you trust who is qualified to fix the problem and has the knowledge and training to advise you on what to do. You can also find information on the pandemic from trusted sources.

It is hard to believe someone who is a pop star, an actor, or a actress. Why would they believe you about something so important in biomedical science? This is all I would say. It's not right to give nonsense airtime.

Van-Tam may be able to talk directly to children at his Royal Institution lectures at end of the year because of this.

Along with other experts, the three lectures entitled Going Viral: Science Forever Changed by Covid will be delivered by an epidemiologist and Boston United fan. These programmes will be broadcast on BBC Four or iPlayer during Christmas and New Year.

Secondary school children have experienced a lot of disruption, especially secondary school students. Schools have been closed for a long time and social contact has been disrupted at a time when they are most in need of it with their compadres.

It's a chance to share with children what it was like, in terms that they can understand. He said, "Oh, schools closed, and I have these lessons online." This is their chance to be able to understand what has happened to them.

It is possible to be at odds with them.

When asked what he thought about Boris Johnson's photographs showing him sitting cheek to jowl with no masks, he shrugs. It was sort of.

I don't know the answer to that question. However, I will say that I believe it is important to frame your work in terms of the Japanese threeCs: Close contact, crowded settings and closed settings with poor ventilation.

The cabinet met in Downing Street last Wednesday, but not as follows the three Cs. Photograph by Reuters

The proportion of people who are likely to have been vaccinated is important. It is impossible to assess all situations, and I will not try.

He will not be drawn on any disagreements or disputes between scientists and politicians.

I will reflect on these moments and share them with you later. These moments are being held back for now so we can get on with the rest of this.

Is the pandemic taking a toll on Van-Tam personally? Van-Tam acknowledges that it has.

It is fair to say that no one who worked in senior science roles expected to have to deal with the challenges we've faced over the past two years. It has been challenging and it is not something that we signed up for. We are exactly where we are. You don't always have the option of where you want to go or whether it is your time to serve. If it is, you have to stand up and be counted.

What about the future?

I don't know what the future holds. It has been very exhausting. Don't make big decisions when you are tired or if youre not in the right space to reflect. So, I'd say just wait and see.

Could he be lured by Strictly Come Dancing He promised not.

I don't think Lycra would be flattering on me.

Tickets for live filming the 2021 Christmas lectures are available to RIGB members and patrons through a ballot opening in October.