They didn’t ask for focus, and sometimes they didn’t always seem comfortable under the media glare.
But the scientists who came into our lives at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic became well-known names.
No more and no less than Professor Jonathan Van-Tam.
The only one with a nickname: JVT.
The only one with a distinctive way of words, some of them embedded in a range of puzzling metaphors and analogies.
In an exclusive interview with The Guardian, Van-Tam, the deputy medical director, has now reflected on the past 18 months.
He gave a warning, made a promise, and made an admission.
He also looked ahead.
Van-Tam will present this year’s Royal Institution Christmas lectures, following in the footsteps of Sir David Attenborough, Dame Nancy Rothwell and Michael Faraday, who began the tradition in 1825.
Van-Tam is proud to have asked, but he also has some urgent concerns.
“We are still in a pandemic period,” he said. “And I think the period of considerable danger will last several more months. And I think it would be wrong … to have confidence that we are in a really comfortable place until this winter is out of the way and we are entering spring. “
He added: “This is my biggest concern, that people relax and think that this is so [it], the program is over. Orderly. And I’m still not sure where it is. It would be lovely if it is, [if] keep planning in a nice way. But I still have the caution that there are more riots with this virus. “
Inevitably, perhaps, Van-Tam conjures up a metaphor.
“It’s like there’s this big express train going down the east coast main line, but in reality, the final destination is the last stop in Scotland somewhere. And of course, as you get off that one “Rail travel is slowing down, line speeds are slowing down, there are a bit more twists and turns, there are more stops and false ends. And it’s a bit like that: we make a lot of main line journeys, but we haven’t finished the job.”
The teacher then changed his attack, comparing the situation to Scafell Pike’s climbing.
“There are several false peaks. And they’re a big effort to get there and you get to that piece and you think “Oh, great”. And you really realize when the fog clears, there is a little more and, there is a little more … We are in this kind of stages, in which it is a test of our endurance and of our ability to stay focused and see well ”.
Van-Tam insisted that he never tries these metaphors and never knows exactly where they come from. Mostly, they are out of the fist. “There’s only a little bit of somewhere in my head space type, to take them if that’s what needs to be done.”
Like the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, he has a particularly tenuous view of celebrities spreading misinformation.
It was Whitty who called Nicki Minaj. The rapper told his Twitter followers that his cousin in Trinidad refused to take the Covid-19 vaccine because his friend had it and then became powerless with his testicles swollen.
Again, Van-Tam seeks an analogy.
“If your gaming PC has an error, do not take it to a plumber and ask him to fix it. Find someone who, you know, is properly qualified to fix it and has the experience and training to give you advice on what is wrong or what needs to be done. And the same goes for pandemic information, go to trusted sources.
“You know, why would you believe someone who, I don’t know, is a pop star or an actress or actor … Why would you believe them about something deeply meaningful in terms of biomedical sciences if they don’t have the training and training to give you “That’s my opinion. That’s all I would say. And I just don’t think it’s right to give nonsense any airtime.”
Perhaps this is one of the reasons Van-Tam is so interested in speaking directly to children at his Royal Institution lectures at the end of the year.
The epidemiologist and Boston United fan will give three lectures, called Going Viral: How Covid Changed Science Forever, along with other experts to explore Covid’s legacy. The programs will be broadcast on BBC Four and iPlayer between Christmas and New Year.
“Children have suffered a lot, especially high school students. They have had their schools closed for a long time, they have interrupted social contact at a time when they really need it with their friends and classmates.
“I think it’s an opportunity to explain to children in terms that they can understand what we’ve been through, where maybe the lens they’ve seen is ‘Oh, school is closed’ and ‘I have to do this online lessons,'” he said. say, “So this is their chance to get to a level similar to what has happened to them.”
Leveling with them can have their limits.
Asked what he thinks about the photographs of Boris Johnson’s cabinet sitting on his cheek in his face without masks, the professor analyzes the question. Sort of.
“You know, that’s … I just don’t answer that question. What I’m going to say is that, I think it’s important, whenever possible, to try to frame what you’re doing in terms of the three Japanese C’s: close contact, crowded configurations , closed configurations with relatively poor ventilation.
“And I think the proportion of people who are likely to be vaccinated in the room or who are likely to be positive … are important factors. But it’s not possible to judge specific situations and I won’t try.”
Nor will he be attracted to any controversy and disagreement between politicians and scientists, yet.
“I will reflect on this type of moment and I will explain it to you later. Right now, we will stop them until we get over it. “
Has the pandemic affected you personally?
Van-Tam admits yes.
“I think it’s fair to say that no one working in a senior scientific role expected what we had to live with in the last two years, the level of responsibility, the workload or the profile. And it’s been very challenging, and it’s nothing that any of us signed up for, so to speak. But we are where we are. And, you know, sometimes in life you can’t choose where you are and if it’s time to serve. And if so, you have to stand up and be counted ”.
And what about the future?
“I do not know what the future holds. So far it has been a very exhausting experience. And now, never make an important decision when you’re tired and when you’re not in the right reflective space. So I think I would just say wait and see. “
Could I be tempted by Strictly Come Dancing? He promised not to.
“I don’t think it’s very flattering on Lycra.”