If there was any doubt about Prof Jonathan Van-Tam’s status as the leading light of the government’s coronavirus briefings, he cemented it on Friday evening, drawing bafflement and delight by repeatedly finishing his answers with the word “over”.
Perhaps inspired by his tenuous description of the country as being on a “glide path” towards a vaccine with a risk of “side winds”, Van-Tam marked his first coronavirus briefing from self-isolation “due to a household contact” with a nod to the idiom of pilots. In responses instantly destined for a million supercuts, the deputy chief medical officer for England said “over” over and over, but – crucially – avoided the rookie error of adding “and out”.
Van-Tam offered no warning or explanation of his eccentric phrasing, but it was presumably intended to provide a signal to the health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, and the NHS England medical director, Prof Stephen Powis, that they could safely talk without interrupting him. They did not respond in kind.
Previous press briefings, work meetings, Zoom calls and telephone conversations conducted throughout the pandemic as well as before have largely been navigated without using the phrase, which is typically associated with crackly two-way radio conversations in war movies. On the other hand, it is substantially less annoying for those watching the briefing than the refrain of “you need to unmute” aimed by ministers at panicking journalists.
Van-Tam’s appearance was also marked by his backdrop of Boston United football programmes. He has previously worn the club tie at the government podium, to the delight of the club, and described himself as a “devout season ticket holder”, a clip which was turned into an obscure meme.
His use of the glide path image, meanwhile, is not his first brush with strained analogies. Among other moments of improvised imagery, he has compared aspects of the pandemic to a swallow, to the successful first penalty at the end of a play-off final, and to waiting for a train on a wet, windy night and seeing two lights appearing on the tracks 2 miles away but then noticing it slowing down, then having it finally arrive only for the doors not to open. Over.