The medical chief’s metaphors: Trains, planes and penalty shootouts

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam has spoken about his fondness for metaphors and how they help with people’s understanding of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The deputy chief medical officer, often referred to as JVT, has become renowned for his use of analogies to help explain certain aspects of the virus and the nation’s response to it.

Not long before returning to an updated version of his signature football example, Prof Van-Tam told BBC Breakfast viewers: “I love metaphors. I think they bring complex stories to life for people. It’s great.”

Football fan Prof Van-Tam compared the Pfizer vaccine trial results with a penalty shoot-out last month and has continued the comparison over recent weeks.

So how is the football match looking and what other imaginative paths has he gone down?

– Penalties

Prof Van-Tam turned to sport and the agonising example of penalties to express the importance of vaccine breakthroughs.

Last month, suggesting it was not yet known how the Pfizer vaccine would affect transmission of the virus, he went to great metaphorical lengths to play down the hope and excitement.

The wait for a vaccine was described in footballing terms (Andrew Matthews/PA)
The wait for a vaccine was described in footballing terms (Andrew Matthews/PA)

“So this is like… getting to the end of the playoff 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.”

– Holding on for the win

In what sounded almost like a cross between football commentary and punditry, Prof Van-Tam said on Thursday it is clear that in the first half the away team “gave us an absolute battering”, but that an equalising goal was clinched in the 70th minute.

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

A football match on Hackney Marshes in London (Steven Paston/PA)
A football match on Hackney Marshes in London (Steven Paston/PA)

“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.

– Cleared to land

Prof Van-Tam has also compared the progress on a vaccine to the tricky “glide path” of a plane coming into land.

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

Gatwick stock
Gatwick stock

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 the platform

Prof Van-Tam said the whole process is similar to what so many Brits have been familiar with for years – waiting to board a crowded train.

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

“And 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.

A train runs along the track (Peter Byrne/PA)
A train runs along the track (Peter Byrne/PA)

“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.

Warming to the theme, he 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.”