Jonathan Van-Tam given prestigious award for Covid press briefings

Royal Society says he played a critical role in public engagement during the Covid-19 pandemic
Van-Tam during a Covid-19 Downing Street televised briefing. Photo: PA/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

24 Aug 2022

Sir Jonathan Van-Tam has been recognised with a prestigious Royal Society award for his plain-speaking science communication during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The former UK deputy chief medical officer, who stood down from the role in March, has received the David Attenborough Award and Lecture for his contribution at regular televised Downing Street press conferences during the pandemic.

The Royal Society said he had played a “critical role in public engagement during the Covid-19 pandemic as UK deputy chief medical officer, through national and international media”.

As deputy chief medical officer for health protection, Van-Tam became a household name during the pandemic, gaining popularity for his creative analogies to explain the complexities of Covid.

Van-Tam said: “I feel very humbled to have been chosen by the society because so many UK scientists do really great work making science accessible to the public. This is quite simply a huge honour.”

The annual award recognises outstanding public engagement in science. It comes with a silver gilt medal and a gift of £2,500, along with an invitation to deliver a prize lecture.

Professor Shearer West, vice chancellor of the University of Nottingham, said the award was “richly deserved”.

Van-Tam joined England’s top medical advisory team in 2017 on secondment from the University of Nottingham, before returning to the university earlier this year. He was replaced by consultant epidemiologist Thomas Waite.

The university said his plain English approach during pandemic briefings had been “fundamental” in education people about the risks posed by Covid-19, the science behind the disease and promoting good behaviours to beat the virus. This included using sports and train analogies to explain transmission risks and the importance of vaccines.

Explaining what lays behind his communication skills, Van-Tam said: “I am passionate about people from all walks of life and backgrounds being able to engage with science in a way that meets their needs and allows them in turn to benefit from science discoveries in their daily lives; there is no better example than the Covid-19 vaccines which have literally allowed our society to reopen after a devastating pandemic.

"But it is always our job as scientists to meet the public at their point of need and understanding.”

Van-Tam also received a received a knighthood this summer for his services to public health.

As well as his public-facing role, Van-Tam worked on the Vaccine Taskforce and supported the development of treatments. He has also played an important role in MERS and monkeypox outbreaks, the severe 2017-18 winter flu season and responding to the Novichok attacks in 2019, the University of Nottingham said.

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