Often seen alongside the Prime Minister, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam – now widely referred to as JVT - has become recognized as one of the most trusted faces and voices of the battle against the pandemic.
The Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England is originally from Boston, and studied at Boston Grammar School, and he was back in the town on Friday March 19 to join the team of vaccinators at the PRSA.
And after completing his shift, Professor Van Tam took part in a question-and-answer session with local community leaders on the vaccination programme.
During the session, JVT answered questions about the delivery, safety and impact of the programme, as well as about his love for Boston United Football Club.
And one of the community leaders asking the questions was an old primary school friend, who complimented his former classmate on his, now famous, straightforward way of explaining information.
Professor Van-Tam replied that he was very proud of being from Boston, adding “many of the lessons in how to put things over to people, I learnt on the streets of Boston”.
Throughout the session, he was very keen to seek to reassure people on the safety of the vaccine.
Melanie Weatherley, chair of the Lincolnshire Care Association, said uptake among care staff has been really good, but they would like 100%, and a key feedback they were getting was concerns about safety.
Professor Van Tam said: “The first thing to say is the clinical trials have been exceptionally big. They typically involved 30k to 40k around the world. They are going to pick up any common side effects.
“We are now in a position were in UK alone we’ve now vaccinated 26m people. That programme stretches back to beginning of December. I believe we would have seen any big safety concerns by now.
“We are now getting confident that there are no common or no fairly common side effects with this vaccine other than the ones we expect, and you can expect a sore arm and you can expect to have a headache and feel grotty the next day. That is completely normal and expected.
“It will pass, and you can take some paracetamol if you want to, but it’s a lot better than having covid.”
Asked by Graham Wright, head Sibsey School, why school staff weren’t initially prioritised for the vaccine, Professor Van Tam said the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation had said they had to begin the programme in a way that saves the maimum amount of lives.
“The JCVI looked at all the risk factors, and they looked at occupation as well, but the big risk factors were age, followed by age, followed by age, followed by chronic illness. It was literally that stark.”
He said now lower age groups are being vaccinated, there had been some pressure from occupational group.
“There are some groups that are higher risk, but teaching was not at the top of that. And they said the quickest way was to keep it simple and do it by age.”
He quoted ONS statistics looking at teachers and educational professionals aged 20-64 between 9 March and 28 Dec 2020, and the death rate from Covid in male teachers was 18.4 per 100k, with the rate for males in same age band in the general population 31.4 per 100k; for females it was 9.8 per 100k in the education group whereas it was 16.8 in the general population.
Rober Oldershaw, from local food firm the Moulton Bulb Company, raised the issue of fear among his Eastern European staff about the vaccine, and asked what the Government would be doing to encourage groups who are fearful.
The professor said: “The Government knows it’s important to leave no one behind in this programme and we don’t intend to. But we do recognise that the levels of understanding and of suspicion and fear will vary in terms of different ethnic minority groups in the UK.
“It’s really down to understanding what people’s needs are, being ready to let them take their time to make decisions, accepting they won’t come forward all at once, making the service as accessible to them in a way that is meaningful to them, and making sure the funding is there for that.”
He said the Government had committed £23m to 60 councils (including Boston Borough) and voluntary groups across England to try and allow schemes to reach those who are hardest to reach, saying that we had to persevere and adopt the mentality that it is never too late to have your vaccine.
A similar issue was raised by Bridget Lloyd from Lincolnshire Housing Partnership, who said some Eastern European tenants had raised concerns about the Oxford Astra Zeneca, often after hearing from family in their home countries.
Professor Van Tam said: “It’s very challenging when they hear something that just isn’t right or isn’t true.
“Europe is experiencing a third wave, quite a dramatic upturn in many parts. The UK is on the opposite trajectory and the reason we believe that is the strength and depth of vaccine programme, for which Astra Zeneca is one of the main stays.
“We need to continue to press our message that the vaccine has been properly evaluated by one of the most stringent authorities in the world, the MHRA, and all people have to do is look around them and see evidence that it is now working and starting to change our lives.”
Ben Ashton, a former school mate of JVT, and transport manager Benton Bros, paid tribute to all he had achieved. “For a lad from Boston, the community is so proud of what you’ve done and what you’ve achieved. And the way you come across and put it in easy language, I think its fantastic.”