Last week, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced that Deputy Chief Medical Officer (DCMO) for England, Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam (or ‘JVT’ as he is affectionately called), is to step down from his post in March 2022. He joined DHSC on secondment from the University of Nottingham in 2017 and will return to be the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. Nottingham’s gain will be DHSC’s loss as he is extremely well-regarded within the Department and will be missed by everyone who worked with him.
I was lucky enough to work with JVT during my time as Chief Press Officer at DHSC and I got to see first-hand why he is one of the most celebrated scientists and communicators in the UK today.
In his time as DCMO for Health Protection, Professor Van-Tam has played important roles in a number of different incidents, including domestic outbreaks of MERS and Monkeypox, the 2017/18 influenza season and the response to the Novichok attacks. He was recently knighted in the New Year’s Honours list for his impressive achievements.
The public are not accustomed to seeing technical advisors on their television screens, but during the COVID-19 pandemic JVT was thrust into the limelight and became a household name, thanks to his important role in the vaccines programme. His appearances at the daily No10 press briefings became characterised by his direct but effective approach to science communications and creative metaphors (and his ties in the colours of his beloved Boston United!)
I once had a long conversation with a senior BBC journalist about why government scientists like JVT have been such successful communicators during these unprecedented times. We boiled it down to three main things:
1. He answered the question that was asked, not the question he wanted
Most people listening to an interview just want a straight answer to a question. JVT and his fellow government scientists were so much more trusted because they did exactly that and were less likely to deploy spin. There was no attempt to dodge questions or give the government ‘line to take’. They answered the question that was asked clearly and directly and while they may not always have been easy answers to give, it made audiences feel like they were being honest with them.
This sometimes led to awkward moments, like when he condemned the Prime Minister’s former Chief Advisor Dominic Cummings’ lockdown breach, saying the rules “are clear and they have always been clear”.
2. He made his answers relatable
Sir Jonathan has won plaudits for his talent for making complex scientific messages media-friendly and relatable to the public, including most memorably persuading the public to take the vaccine by speaking about his mum taking the jab, and his use of football analogies to illustrate the Government’s COVID game plan.
My personal favourite is when the UK approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine in December 2020 there was much discussion over the storage and transportation of the doses, which needed to be maintained at extremely cold temperatures – unlike, as the professor pointed out, yoghurt.
“This is a complex product with a very fragile culture,” he said. “It’s not a yoghurt that can be taken out of the fridge and put back in multiple times.”
If you’ve ever worked with him, you’ll know he does this all the time. He understands the importance of packing a message in language that his audience will understand and not to confuse them by using too much jargon.
3. His arguments were grounded in evidence not emotion
As a scientist, Professor Van-Tam is used to using evidence and facts to support his arguments and this translated to his media performances. During his many press conference appearances he would give factual, evidence-based answers to questions and clearly explain the rationale for why certain decisions were made over others, delivered with gravitas and sincerity. So even if the audience disagrees with the conclusion they can at least sympathise with the thinking underpinning a decision or approach.
The landscape of scientific and government communications has transformed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and as JVT steps down from the Government podium, budding media performers looking to follow in his footsteps would be wise to learn from his example.