“It really felt like a war”: Professor Van-Tam Shares His Pandemic Experience

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam standing behind Downing Street podium.
Lucinda Dodd

Lucinda Dodd met with Britain’s famous one-time Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, in his University of Nottingham (UoN) office to discuss his experience of working through a pandemic which, he fears, may not be the last of our lifetimes.

When I visited Jonathan Van-Tam in his university office I was immediately struck by three intriguing items on his table. There was a mug featuring his photo-shopped face, a model of an old-fashioned ambulance and a reptile object I can’t quite identify. When asked about the reptile, he revealed: 

“That’s a leaving gift from another wing of the government,” before explaining that it’s a pangolin.  He further expanded that the reptile was “implicated potentially in the movement of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – from bats, to pangolins, to humans – and so they decided to gift me with a plastic pangolin.” 

Addressing the other two items on his desk, he shared that four medical regiments gave him the model of a Land Rover ambulance once deployed by the British Army after he presented a lecture for them. Rotating the mug to show more of his face, he declared “This is a Lincoln City mug. The boys and girls in the Department of Social Care have carefully emblazoned me on, knowing full well that if Boston United – that’s my team – have any kind of arch rivals, it’s Lincoln!” 

“Nothing prepares you for the amount of publicity that I got during the Covid pandemic”

Professor Van-Tam became an overnight household name during the pandemic. Regarding this sudden fame, he shared that  prior to assuming his government advisory role, he received training to prepare him for potential media exposure. However, he insists: “Nothing prepares you for the amount of publicity that I got during the Covid pandemic. Nothing made us able to predict the daily press conferences.”

Despite the stresses of existing in the public eye to address such a serious issue, he asserted that there were lighter moments: “You know, the kind of public accolade, and the T-shirts, and the mugs and all those kind of daft bits, which as a scientist, you don’t go looking for.”  

Without apparently seeking it, Professor Van-Tam developed a devoted fan base during the first lockdown. His idolisation by some resulted in the creation of very interesting merchandise. A Van-Tam prayer candle – selling on Amazon for £18 at one stage – qualified as “the craziest and the most amusing thing!” 

He also mentioned a Facebook page established in his honour, jovially adding: “I’m surprised you’re not a member of the the JVT Facebook Appreciation Society!” The group has thousands of members, however, the professor modestly conceded, “but I don’t go on that.”

I asked Professor Van-Tam about his routine before his high-profile press conferences. He revealed that ahead of Downing Street appearances he would be fuelled by “a good cup of tea…It’s served in lovely fine bone china”. I point to the floral teacup on his table and ask if that’s the type. He nods: “It’s in the kind of genre of the Downing Street cup and saucer I liked to drink from.”

The other part of his routine was to find Larry The Cat: “I like cats, and a little bit of fur therapy before you do something stressful is quite calming.”

I inquired what Larry – perhaps currently the most permanent member of the British political scene –  is like, and he revealed that Larry has two distinct sides: “He’s generally friendly but, because of the large number of visitors, he is self-willed, and does what he wants.”

the professor talked of the routine 16-hour working days: “They were typically a little bit lighter at the weekends, about 12 hours”

We moved onto his life behind-the-scenes during the peaks of the pandemic, and the professor talked of the routine 16-hour working days: “They were typically a little bit lighter at the weekends, about 12 hours.” These days, which included meetings with officials and scientists, sometimes began with a 5:30 am phone call to Downing Street.

I was curious as to whether there was any relaxation time, he told me that – when possible – he’d go on a run: “You get some music on, and get into your own zone.” 

Asked to identify his favourite song to run to, he says it depended on his mood. “So if I’m in a running-fast mood”- he laughs, admitting ‘fast’ is a relative term for him –  “I like a bit of Flo Rida ‘Club Can’t Handle Me’ – whatever it’s called. That one gets your energy levels going. But I’ve very eclectic musical tastes – anything from 60s, through the 70s and into the current day. I’m mainly a 70s child”.

I asked him whether he has a stand-out Covid day: “Yes, I do. It was sometime in late November [2020] when I was working on the Vaccine Taskforce.”

On this day, they heard the news that the vaccine worked well to prevent infection and death. “At that point,” he admits, “I got very tearful – actually, in the privacy of my own home. I realised we were going to be able to bring this pandemic to a quicker close than we would’ve been able to without them.” 

“It really felt like a war”

The professor revealed how once vaccines were created, the government was still only halfway there. Deciding how to dispense the vaccine was as much of a challenge: “Just getting the vaccines, so they were available, and then getting them delivered felt like a mission.”

“It really felt like a war,” he declared, “every second counted, and every single jab mattered.”

“there’ll be at least one more pandemic in the 21st century. But probably more than that”

 Since Covid, there has been talk as to the likelihood and severity of future pandemics, so I wanted to get JVT’s scientific perspective. Alas this was rather bleak: “I can pretty much assure your readers,” he said, “that there’ll be at least one more pandemic in the 21st century. But probably more than that.” 

He warned that there’s a link between pandemics and how humans currently treat the natural world: “The more humans encroach on the animal kingdom and on natural habitats, the more likely it is that we will come into contact with funny new infections, which have been there all along in animals – but not harming humans.” 

“I’m not a climate change expert, but as humans encroach on animal habitats, there’s no question that we’re going to get exposed to more stuff.”

So what’s Sir Professor Van-Tam’s future now?

Stepping out of the limelight as UoN’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for the Medicine and Health Sciences, he identified the challenge to produce health care workers for the next generation: “If we stop producing healthcare workers who are really good,” he declares, “then we’ve failed in our social mission.”

Lucinda Dodd

Featured image courtesy of the University of Nottingham Press Office. No changes were made to this image. 

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