The year in Jonathan Van-Tam analogies – and why they work so well

Taz Ali, Luke Powell and Ted Hennessey, PA
·4-min read

England’s deputy chief medical officer has become renowned for his use of colourful analogies to help with the public’s understanding of the pandemic.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, referred to as JVT, has previously spoken about his fondness for metaphors, using trains, planes and penalty shootouts in light-hearted allegories during a year of extreme hardship for so many.

More recently, he has compared the Covid-19 vaccine rollout to defenders “tracking back” during a football match.

On why the analogies are so well received by the public, Dr Wasim Ahmed, lecturer in digital business at Newcastle University, told the PA news agency: “From a marketing perspective, metaphors are used to try and make marketing more personable, memorable and persuasive, and can be effective.

Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam
Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam (Victoria Jones/PA)

“In a long press conference metaphors and analogies may lead to better recall and could be more identifiable with among the public.”

Dr Amelie Gourdon-Kanhukamwe, a senior lecturer in behavioural science at Kingston University, said educational research has suggested analogies are common and effective in the classroom to teach science.

She told PA: “Persuasion research also suggests a small advantage of using metaphors over literal messages.

“Although this effect is small, there is some evidence that the use of analogies can make the person communicating the message appear more dynamic.

“As there is no detriment to communication associated with the use of metaphors, it is quite reasonable to use them, particularly if they help slightly to enhance comprehension and persuasion.”

Here are some of the medical chief’s other analogies from the past year:

– Defensive midfielders

In his latest metaphorical offering to the public, Prof Van-Tam likened the vaccination programme to defensive football players “watching everybody’s back”.

At a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, he said: “A bit like a football game where the strikers who score the wonder goals are the ones who make the headlines, actually, the hard yards are done by the defenders and by the defensive midfielders tracking back, tracking back for 90 minutes of the whole game, watching everybody’s back.

“This is what it’s going to be about now, tracking back and making sure that we finish the job properly in the phase one cohorts before we move on.”

– Grand National

Prof Van-Tam previously compared the pandemic to the famous horse race held annually at Aintree in Liverpool, warning the country must not fall at the final fence.

Speaking to The Sun, he said: “The vaccine effects are going to take three months until we see them properly, and until then no-one can relax.

“We are probably in the last few furlongs of this race – like in the Grand National. We just have a couple more fences, we have just got to stick with it.”

– Penalties

Prof Van-Tam spoke about football penalty shootouts as he discussed vaccine breakthroughs.

He was discussing how the Pfizer vaccine would affect transmission of the virus.

“So this is like… getting to the end of the play-off final, it’s gone to penalties, the first player goes up and scores a goal.

“You haven’t won the cup yet, but what it does is, it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.”

– Nicking the win

In a football commentary-style remark about the pandemic, Prof Van-Tam said it was clear that in the first half the away team “gave us an absolute battering”, but that an equalising goal was scored in the 70th minute.

“OK, we’ve got to hold our nerve now, see if we can get another goal and nick it.

“But the key thing is not to lose it, not to throw it away at this point because we’ve got a point on the board, and we’ve got the draw,” the Boston United season ticket holder said.

– Landing a plane

Prof Van-Tam has also compared the progress on a vaccine to a plane coming into land.

He told a press briefing: “Do I believe that we are now on the glide path to landing this plane? Yes I do.”

Prof Van-Tam added: “Do I accept that sometimes when you are on the glide path, you can have a side wind and the landing is not totally straightforward, totally textbook? Of course.”

– Waiting on a railway platform

Prof Van-Tam said the pandemic is similar to waiting to board a crowded train.

“This to me is like a train journey, it’s wet, it’s windy, it’s horrible.

“Two miles down the tracks, two lights appear and it’s the train and it’s a long way off and we’re at that point at the moment.

“That’s the efficacy result.

“Then we hope the train slows down safely to get into the station, that’s the safety data, and then the train stops.

“And at that point, the doors don’t open, the guard has to make sure it’s safe to open the doors. That’s the MHRA, that’s the regulator,” he said.

Prof Van-Tam added: “And when the doors open, I hope there’s not an unholy scramble for the seats.

“The JCVI has very clearly said which people need the seats most and they are the ones who should get on the train first.”