“JVT’s one-of-a-kind approach to communicating science over the past two years has no doubt played a vital role in protecting and reassuring the nation, and made him a national treasure,” Javid said.
Sources close to Van-Tam said his departure was not prompted by the crisis at No 10 over parties and alleged Covid rule-breaking. However, he has previously made his view known, telling a press conference in May 2020 that the rules “have always been clear”, and “in my opinion, they apply to all”.
Van-Tam became deputy chief medical officer for England in 2017. He has worked alongside Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief science adviser, throughout the pandemic.
His presence at Downing Street briefings and interviews with the media, and flair for metaphors to describe the situation the UK found itself in, made him a household name.
Speaking in the Commons on Thursday, the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, paid tribute to Van-Tam for his “outstanding public service” throughout the pandemic.
“JVT already has a knighthood, but working with the prime minister, he must have the patience of a saint. On behalf of the whole Labour party, we thank him for his service and we wish him well for the future. He is truly a national treasure.”
In late 2020, he told the BBC that in the early stages of the pandemic the “away team gave us an absolute battering” and that we had to hold our nerve and nick a goal back.
When clinical trials showed vaccines were highly effective against Covid, he told a Downing Street press briefing that it was like going to penalties at the end of the play-off final, and seeing your first player hit the back of the net. “You haven’t won the cup yet, but what it does is, it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.”
His imagery was not confined to football, however. In September, he said there was still some way to go in the pandemic, likening the situation to an express train that had reached rural tracks, with more stops, twists and turns. It was also like climbing Scafell Pike, he ventured, noting the numerous false summits. “You realise when the mist clears, there’s a bit more and there’s a bit more.”
Van-Tam has been on secondment to the Department of Health and Social Care from the University of Nottingham. He will return as the pro-vice-chancellor for the faculty of medicine and health sciences.
He described his time as deputy chief medical officer (CMO) as “the most challenging of my professional career, especially the Covid response”. Before the pandemic, Van-Tam played an important role in England’s response to domestic cases of Mers and monkeypox and to the novichok attacks in Salisbury.
“We all wish Covid had never happened. Notwithstanding, it has been the greatest privilege of my professional career to have served the people of the UK during this time,” Van-Tam said.
“I want to pay tribute to Prof Chris Whitty, the CMO team, my fellow scientists, public health professionals and clinicians whose support, wisdom and energy has been inspiring. There are countless numbers who work behind the scenes – all of whom have an unrelenting commitment to help and support the British public. It has been an honour to work with them all.”
Whitty said Van-Tam had been an outstanding deputy and public servant. “I am profoundly thankful for his steadfast support, advice, leadership and commitment. His communication of public health advice and science has been remarkable.”