How JVT won the public's affection and became a household name

From ripping off his shirt and tie, his love of Boston United and analogies on red cards, penalties and the Grand National: How JVT won the public’s affection and became a household name as he delivered health messages with dose of humour

  • Professor Jonathan Van Tam uses analogies to explain scientific concepts
  • Britons loved his use of humour during his time behind the Number 10 podium
  • Professor Van Tam, known as JVT, has compared the vaccine to a crowded train
  • Professor Jonathan Van Tam has regularly deployed fun metaphors to clearly explain complicated scientific ideas during the pandemic.

    Some of the former deputy chief medical officer’s best moments include comparing the Government’s relationship with coronavirus to a football game.

    He has also likened the vaccine rollout to a train that was ready to be boarded or a plane preparing for landing. 

    At the end of 2021 Professor Van Tam, known as JVT, 57, became a social media sensation after ripping off his trademark shirt and tie to reveal a slightly less formal shirt during a jovial television appearance.  

    ‘I love metaphors. I think they bring complex stories to life for people. It’s great,’ he previously told the BBC.

    Here we look at some of JVT’s best moment’s and greatest analogies:








    Britons have loved Jonathan Van Tam's use of analogies while explaining Covid-19

    Britons have loved Jonathan Van Tam’s use of analogies while explaining Covid-19 

    Defensive midfielders

    JVT, a fan of Boston United, likened the vaccination programme to defensive football players whose job it was to ‘watch everybody’s back’.

    At a Downing Street press conference he said: ‘A bit like a football game where the strikers who score the wonder goals are the ones who make the headlines, actually, the hard yards are done by the defenders and by the defensive midfielders tracking back, tracking back for 90 minutes of the whole game, watching everybody’s back.

    ‘This is what it’s going to be about now, tracking back and making sure that we finish the job properly in the phase one cohorts before we move on.’

    His love for Boston United

    He once said: ‘I’m very proud to be a Boston United fan. If I can help put the Pilgrims on the map in any way, I’m always happy to do so. It means a lot to me.’

    Lincolnshire-based Boston United play in the National League North – the sixth tier of English football. 

    JVT has previously worn an amber-and-black club tie at the Downing Street podium and regularly mentions his favourite team on television. 

    ‘I’m a devout Boston United season-ticket holder and I’m desperate for football to come back,’ he said at a briefing in May 2020. 

    JVT has previously worn an amber-and-black club tie (pictured) at the Downing Street podium and regularly mentions his favourite team on television

    JVT has previously worn an amber-and-black club tie (pictured) at the Downing Street podium and regularly mentions his favourite team on television

    A Jonathan Van Tam back of the net mug

    A mug

    Fans have created Jonathan Van Tam merchandise including mugs 

    Fan merchandise includes this t-shirt with a picture of JVT pointing on it

    Fan merchandise includes this t-shirt with a picture of JVT pointing on it 

    One piece of fan merchandise was this hoodie with the words 'The Prof. Jonathan Van-Tam Appreciation Society'

    One piece of fan merchandise was this hoodie with the words ‘The Prof. Jonathan Van-Tam Appreciation Society’

    A JVT facemask was created and sold by fans of the scientific adviser

    A JVT facemask was created and sold by fans of the scientific adviser 

    Grand National

    He compared the pandemic to the Aintree horse race when he warned Britain could not fall at the final fence. 

    ‘The vaccine effects are going to take three months until we see them properly, and until then no-one can relax,’ he told The Sun.

    ‘We are probably in the last few furlongs of this race – like in the Grand National. We just have a couple more fences, we have just got to stick with it.’

    JVT compared the pandemic to the Aintree horse race when he warned Britain could not fall at the final fence (file image)

    JVT compared the pandemic to the Aintree horse race when he warned Britain could not fall at the final fence (file image)

    Penalties

    Football is a common tool used by JVT to explain Britain’s progress through the coronavirus pandemic.

    He once described the development of the Pfizer vaccine to reaching the penalties at the end of the play-off final.

    ‘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.

    ‘You haven’t won the cup yet, but what it does is, it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.’

    Landing a plane 

    The progress of the vaccine rollout has been compared to different forms of transport, including a plane coming in to land.

    JVT said: ‘Do I believe that we are now on the glide path to landing this plane? Yes I do.

    ‘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.’

    Crowded trains

    JVT said the pandemic was like waiting on a platform for a train, with the lights ‘a long way off’.

    He said: ‘This to me is like a train journey, it’s wet, it’s windy, it’s horrible.

    ‘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.’

    JVT said the pandemic was like waiting on a platform for a train, with the lights 'a long way off' (file image)

    JVT said the pandemic was like waiting on a platform for a train, with the lights ‘a long way off’ (file image)

    He said the train was the vaccine, and he hoped when it was ready there would not be ‘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.’

    Red card

    JVT said Britons needed to avoid getting a ‘red card’ from the Omicron coronavirus variant by getting a booster jab.

    He said: ‘Omicron is like now picking up a couple of yellow cards to key players on top. We may be OK but we’re kind of starting to feel at risk that we might go down to 10 players and if that happens – or it’s a risk that’s going to happen – then we need everyone on the pitch to up their game in the meantime.

    ‘We’re not going to wait for the red card to happen, we are going to act decisively now and we’re asking everyone to up their game, we’re asking everyone to play their part in the urgency now of the booster programme, coming forward the moment you are called by the NHS.’

    Yogurt

    When explaining the extreme temperature the coronavirus vaccine must be stored at, JVT said it was not like a yogurt.

    He added: ‘This is a complex product. It’s not a yoghurt that can be taken out of the fridge and put back in multiple times.’

    Standing alone in a meadow   

    The expert once said Britons would not be able to avoid coronavirus unless they’re ‘standing in a meadow alone forever’.

    Pants 

    JVT urged people to ‘actually follow the guidance, don’t tear the pants out of it, and don’t go further than the guidance actually says’ in May 2020.

    Another time he told Sky News: ‘I am certainly concerned that people should not tear the pants out it, and that they should follow whatever rules are announced in due course by the Government.’

    He used the phrase again in May 2021, when he told Britons to be careful as restrictions eased.

    ‘If it is possible to do something outside, better to do it outside, if it is possible to do something with smaller numbers with people you know, rather than multiple new contacts, it’s better to do that,’ he told a Downing Street press briefing.

    ‘Take it steady. I think I’ve said, “Don’t tear the pants out of it,” once before from this or a similar podium. But frankly, we’re back to that again.’ 

    Hosepipe

    At the start of the pandemic JVT was asked about the gap between a rise in infections and a rise in hospitalisations. He said: ‘This whole concept is a bit like a hosepipe in your garden.

    ‘When you turn that tap off, water still comes out of the hosepipe for a few seconds before it dies down. If everyone in a certain area turns on their sprinkler at the same time, pressure will go down.’ 

    The Mum test

    JVT’s mum test involved ensuring his 78-year-old mother was vaccinated. He said: ‘I think the mum test is very important here. My mum is 78. She’ll be 79 shortly and I’ve already said to her, “Mum, make sure when you’re called up, you’re ready. Be ready to take this up”.’

    Spring in a box

    The virus was compared to a spring in a box by JVT, when he said it was important to ‘keep a lid on it’.

    He added: ‘It’s like having a spring in a box and you’ve got the lid on. Now you can take the lid off a little, but you haven’t disconnected the spring or broken the spring in any way.

    ‘If you take the lid right off the spring still under tension off, it will go again.’ 

    And other famous moments… 

    When he ripped off his shirt

    Professor Van-Tam was hosting the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on BBC Four when he ripped off his shirt and tie, disappeared into a cloud of smoke – and reemerged in slightly less formal attire, wearing a more casual blue shirt underneath his jacket. 

    The stunt sparked a typical reaction on social media, with one account comparing JVT – as he’s widely become known – to Steve Coogan’s comedy cringe character, Alan Partridge.

    The professor proceeded to rip off his shirt and tie, disappearing into a cloud of smoke

    The professor proceeded to rip off his shirt and tie, disappearing into a cloud of smoke








    When he dealt calmly with an anti-vaxxer

    JVT stayed completely calm and responded politely to an anti-vaxxer who screamed abuse at him in Westminster last June.

    Geza Tarjanyi, 60, of Leyland, Lancashire, targeted the Deputy Chief Medical Officer as he walked into the Ministry of Defence building.

    He said: ‘Are you Van-Tam, aren’t ya? What was really in that needle that you put into Matt Hancock? Why are you continually lying to the British people? Why are you smiling? This country’s supposed to be in the worst pandemic of all time.’

    Professor Van-Tam politely replied: ‘It is.’ And when, following another torrent of abuse, the anti-vaxxer asked JVT if he was listening, the expert said: ‘What? I’m finding it difficult.’    

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