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Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam answers Covid-19 questions at Queen Mary event

Queen Mary’s Institute of Dentistry recently hosted a virtual Q&A session with England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam.

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Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam.
Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam.

Professor Van-Tam tackled questions on the coronavirus pandemic posed by Queen Mary staff and students touching on topics including Omicron, testing and vaccine mandates for frontline health and social care workers.   

The emergence of the Omicron variant at the end of last year dealt a heavy blow to our progress against the pandemic. But in this session, Professor Van-Tam assured staff and students that whilst the Omicron wave ‘was still very active’, he was hopeful that in the next few weeks and months, things would start to look much better.

Professor Van-Tam also emphasised the continued importance of Covid-19 vaccines in our response to the pandemic, particularly for health and social care workers. He said: “If none of our doctors, dentists, nurses were vaccinated – our health service would have been in a terrible state dealing with Omicron.”

His comments follow the announcement that from April 2022, under law NHS staff in England who have direct face-to-face contact with patients will need to have been vaccinated against Covid-19. Although Professor Van-Tam highlighted that evidence shows a fully vaccinated workforce would lead to materially safer premises, he suggests decisions on how to implement policy to achieve this was a matter for politicians, not doctors like him.

When questioned on the views of individuals that may think they’re immune to Covid after being infected by the virus, he said: “We are now pretty sure that natural immunity, having been infected by Covid-19 lasts a while but then declines. The idea that this is like measles and that once you’ve had it and you get better, that’s it for life. I’m afraid it’s not true.”

However, Professor Van-Tam did share that according to new, emerging data it looks likely that three to four exposures to the virus, either through natural infection or vaccination, gets people to a point where they can manage Covid-19 well and avoid serious disease.  

Covid in the local community  

With Queen Mary’s close links to the local community, staff and students were also keen to discuss the impact of the pandemic within East London, as well as the disparities in outcomes for different ethnic groups that Queen Mary researchers brought to light back in early 2021.

According to Professor Van-Tam “The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have looked at this in quite some detail and have come up with some quite clear messages that there are differences in mortality due to Covid-19 infection by ethnicity, and that they are picking up a consistent signal in Black and South Asian ethnic minority groups.”

Professor Van-Tam said that understanding who is more susceptible to Covid-19 is very complex and despite being more than two years into the pandemic, Covid-19 is still technically a ‘very new infection’ and that we’re only at the beginning of understanding the genes and other factors that lead to bad outcomes from Covid-19.

“It is very hard to disentangle, and at this stage the science is not clear, as to whether these are purely genetic susceptibility or partly genetic susceptibility, or whether this is exposing the fact that there are disparities in terms of socioeconomic status in the UK by socioeconomic group. And that ethnicity if you like, may be to some extent a marker for sociodemographic status and a propensity to live, not through reasons of choice, in households that are larger, where there is a greater degree of crowding and likelihood of onward transmission.”

Thanks to Queen Mary staff and students

In his closing comments Professor Van-Tam went on to thank Queen Mary staff and students for their contributions during the Covid-19 pandemic, “I’d like to thank the staff involved in patient-facing care or support activities. Whether that’s been looking directly caring for patients with Covid, keeping the rest of the NHS going or taking part in the vaccination service. These have been the most incredibly difficult few years. And almost certainly the biggest global public health challenge of our lifetimes.”

“I don’t pretend it has been easy for any of us. And I think wherever we sit or happen to have sat within the system, either through choice or by fate, I appreciate everyone who’s put their weight behind trying to get on top of this.”

Dr Sharan Sidhu, Clinical Governance Lead at the Institute of Dentistry and organiser of the event, said: “We were delighted to have Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam for this event, to offer our staff and students the opportunity to hear first-hand from a national expert on the pandemic, which has had such an incredible impact on us all over the last few years.”

As England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Van-Tam has become a familiar face for many during the pandemic with regular appearances at 10 Downing Street Covid-19 press conferences.

Professor Van-Tam was appointed to the role in October 2017 and currently leads on health protection. He was recognised in this year’s New Year’s Honours list, receiving a Knighthood for his services to public health.

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For media information, contact:

Sophie McLachlan
Faculty Communications Manager (Science and Engineering)
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