Imperial College London

Metaphors and medicine—In conversation with Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam

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Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam and Prof Peter Openshaw

Prof Sir Jonathan Van-Tam discussed his time advising government and the importance of effective science communication at a special Imperial event.

Earlier this month, we were delighted to welcome Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam - Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Medicine & Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham and former Deputy Chief Medical Officer (DCMO) for Health Protection in England – to speak with Imperial’s own Professor Peter Openshaw about his experience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of the Faculty of Medicine’s 25th anniversary celebrations, a keen audience of Faculty staff and postgraduate students assembled at Imperial’s White City Campus to hear Professor Van-Tam discuss some of the lessons learned from the pandemic, the best ways to communicate science effectively to the public, and his experience as an academic working within government.

The event was opened by Imperial President, Prof Hugh Brady, who touched on Prof Van-Tam’s ability to convey the scientific data behind the pandemic to the public: “I think we all feel that we know Jonathan personally, that he's one of the family for his hugely engaging – in the best sense - televised briefings during the pandemic, and his really creative and empathetic human approach to communicating complex science to the general public.”

President, Prof Hugh Brady

As the discussion began, Prof Van-Tam reflected on some of the differences between the swine flu pandemic of 2009 and the COVID-19 pandemic: “I have a personal belief that had this pandemic occurred in 2015 rather than 2020, the messenger RNA technologies would not have been ready and mature enough to serve us then, as they managed to do late in 2020. My second personal belief is that the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions, however painful they were, ultimately prevented this and several other healthcare systems from going into periods of complete overwhelm with hospitalisation. This time, to our credit, the research and development response has been massively better than in 2009. I think science has punched above its weight.”

When asked about his highlights as DCMO for Health Protection in England, Prof Van-Tam said: “The highlight of being DCMO for me was that my accumulated experience in different cultures and territories all came together, particularly, the work I was able to do in the pharmaceutical and vaccine industry was critically important for understanding some of the things that I had to deal with as DCMO.” 

Describing the importance of communicating science, not only through journalists to the public, but also to politicians, Prof Van-Tam said: “One of the fantastic things about being a scientist within government is that advisors advise, ministers decide, and it is right and proper that the decision-making is made by the individuals that the people elected, not by officials.

“But with that relief comes an enormous weight of responsibility. It’s down to you to give very straight, very clear advice. If you don’t, if you put your own spin on it, or you redact certain bits that you hope a minister won’t even consider, then what you are doing is failing to speak truth to power, and you could then be complicit in a faulty decision.”

Audience with Prof Van-Tam and Peter Openshaw

As the discussion moved to the Q&A with audience members and those watching online, Prof Van-Tam spoke about the next big threat to public health: “There are just so many out there, but I do think we need a population that’s more active than it is. I see the burden of chronic diseases and the projections for 20 years from now and it’s pretty grim. I do think we have an even bigger problem with inequalities and deprivation.

“On the infectious diseases side, the political notion that this was a once in a lifetime event is utter nonsense. There will be another pandemic. The probability of an influenza pandemic – we’ve had four in the last 100 years – has neither increased nor decreased as a result of SARS-CoV-2.”

Commenting further on diversity within science, Prof Van-Tam said “What healthcare and science need more than ever is a widening participation agenda so that we have scientists and health professionals from non-affluent,  minority backgrounds. The more that those kinds of people get into science, then the more they will bring with them their lived experiences from wherever they were raised. That is desperately important.” 

Prof Clare Lloyd with an audience As the evening drew to a close, Prof Clare Lloyd, Faculty of Medicine Vice Dean (Institutional Affairs), finished the discussion with some closing remarks: “It’s fantastic to have an in-person meeting. These events are incredibly important and none more so in our 25th anniversary year where we want to celebrate our faculty community, who makes this such a great place to learn, research and work.”


Elinor Pegler

Elinor Pegler
Faculty of Medicine Centre

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Lou Lee

Lou Lee
Faculty of Medicine Centre