One of the leading public figures in the fight against Covid-19, who has Vietnamese heritage, has given a fascinating lecture at Middlesex University in an event celebrating close diplomatic and educational ties between the UK and Vietnam.
Sir Jonathan Van Tam, the Chief Deputy Medical Officer for England until March last year, spoke about the many challenges when tackling the deadly virus and lessons to be learned for innovation and education.
Prof Van Tam, whose father was from Vietnam, is the chair of the Vietnam Intellectual Society in the UK and Ireland, which co-organised the lecture and has 120 academic members spread across 30- plus disciplines and more than 60 British and Irish universities.
“We know it’s more severe than flu, even in the early 30s, but we also have a problem that we can’t say to the public ‘we know when vaccines are coming’ because they might never come. Or we know when there would be anti Covid drugs because there might not be any, so there was a lot of uncertainty in the room but this very clear understanding that something big was upon us.” Prof Van Tam on the early days of the pandemic.
This event, also supported by the Embassy of Vietnam in the UK and featuring a panel discussion, was held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries and to promote further HE opportunities and collaboration.
Opening the event, Professor Nic Beech, Vice Chancellor of Middlesex University, spoke about the “ever-strengthening ties and relationship between the UK and Vietnam, but also between Middlesex and the societies of Vietnam in which we’re seeing a great number of Vietnamese students coming to Middlesex and also staff.
“Middlesex sees itself being a global family, we have 38,000 students and roughly half of them are based in London. And for us this global family is a central part of not just our identity but our strategy and we’re trying to achieve.
“While we’re not all identical we have shared values and purpose. The diversity that we bring to those shared values makes the real difference.”
HE Nguyen Hoang Long, Vietnamese Ambassador to the UK and Ireland, talked about how the partnership has “achieved enormous results” with more than 100 partnerships with UK universities and 15,000 Vietnamese students in the UK pre-pandemic.
“The UK offers the best quality education and higher education research sector in the world and that’s why Vietnamese families have decided to send their children to study in the UK,” said Mr Hoang Long.
He revealed that English rather than French was now the main foreign language for young people in Vietnam, which saw the UK as “its main partner in education, research, innovation and exchange”.
Vietnam is keen to further increase numbers of students and of Vietnamese researchers, scientists and senior academics at UK universities along with collaborating in areas such as computing, rare materials and 6G.
Mr Hoang Long said: “I want to thank Professor Beech and Middlesex University for hosting this event and their kindness to Vietnamese professors and students over the years.
“It is a very open university which has a strong diversity value in education so we are very grateful for your support and I hope in the future based on the excellent experience of Vietnamese students and professors we can have more to come with this wonderful institution.”
Professor Van Tam, now the Faculty Pro Vice Chancellor of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham, spoke in detail about his public role during the Covid pandemic when he regularly appeared in live press conferences.
Referring to World Health Organisation (WHO) figures which showed over 5.42 million reported Covid-19 deaths and more than 14.91 million excess mortality globally between Jan 2020 and December 2021, Prof Van Tam spoke about the suddenness of the disease.
“We put our testing capacity where it had to matter most which was at the doors of the hospital where we were getting the patients who were crashingly ill, and you had to know to whether they were infected or not infected to split the patient flow. So, all our testing went to the hospital so as a result of which there was no real visual Wave One in the community, and there was a Wave One, a huge Wave One and we literally walked into it.
“And that’s why it felt so sudden to go from a nearly normal world to one where you were locked down to what appeared in the public eye to be a matter of a few days.”
He continued: “The communication context was look this is very rapid, it’s moving really quickly in the community. We can’t track it accurately. We know we’re getting a very high death signal in the over 50s and a very high hospital signal, particularly with the over-50s.
“We know it’s more severe than flu, even in the early 30s, but we also have a problem that we can’t say to the public ‘we know when vaccines are coming’ because they might never come. Or we know when there would be anti-Covid drugs because there might not be any, so there was a lot of uncertainty in the room but this very clear understanding that something big was upon us.”
Describing himself as a “Vietnamese person at the heart of the UK government in the worst crisis of a lifetime”, Prof Van Tam said it was crucial to keep communications with the public “honest and realistic, to keep calm and rational” and not make things sound “glossier or better”.
As a key part of the Vaccine Taskforce, Prof Van Tam described the challenges in such an extreme scenario.
“We had to be very clear with ministers that we were going to risk hundreds of millions of UK taxpayers’ money in order to try and get vaccines for the UK and the world as fast as we can.”
While science is “not always fast”, it moved at an “incredible speed during the pandemic”, Prof Tam added.
“If we weren’t failing then we weren’t trying hard enough to get there as fast as we could.
“So, the Vaccine Taskforce was a real triumph of organisation. It was something with a very clear mission and no business as usual about it, where normal speed was not tolerated and risk was accepted, where organisational support was given to team members to take risks, where failure was praised because it meant you were trying hard enough to get the breakthrough.
“And finally, where every single person in the team had to be 110% signed up to what the mission was - a single mission focus. And we got there, we got there as you know pretty much faster than any other country in the world.”
He defended the move to spread the doses over a longer period:
“Actually, in terms of logic and science, although there was an awful lot of backlash at the time, it was logical to spread those vaccines doses out and it did give a better overall result.
“But I understand it was very difficult because what was in the room at the time was a population of very frightened old people, international competition, political rhetoric over vaccine supply.
“By the time we got vaccines there were people who had been in isolation for 12 months, who were very down and desperate to do something that would restore their individual freedoms. And of course, we had the manufacturers who said they only had data only giving these vaccines 28 days apart, which is true.
“So, it is understandable where everyone was on different perspectives but sometimes you need the courage to take the right decision.”
While not ruling out a more virulent strain in future, saying such a question should be referred to a microbiologist, Professor Van Tam highlighted figures which showed in mid-2020 that Covid was almost 20 times more deadly than seasonal flu, but by March last year was only slightly more deadly thanks to immunity, improved treatment and a less virulent strain.
“On the basis of the data it’s alright to be terrified of Covid if you’re also terrified of seasonal flu. That isn’t to belittle that every year flu is a problem for high risk and elderly parts of the population but in context, we’re now in a much different, happier place than we were, through the careful application of science and that careful journey we had to take to stop relying on public health interventions and start relying on clinical health interventions in terms of the vaccines.”
At the start of his talk, Prof Van Tam revealed he had only barely got into medical school at the University of Nottingham and recalled his first day.
“I remember the Dean Rex Coupland giving this address on the day saying ‘some of you have come here with very local accents indeed and don’t be ashamed of those because a lot of people speak with a BBC accent. Don’t be ashamed, keep your accent, be authentic because one day that might matter in terms of how you communicate with the man or woman in the street or your patients’.
“The very next day we were sent down [a] coal mine as medical students and spent the whole day down the mine, with the miners, understanding what it meant to work a mile underground in a temperature of 80 plus degrees in a very dusty environment which was likely to give you chronic lung disease, so we were made to think about the people we serve. And that was a very potent lesson for me.”
A passionate supporter of Boston United FC, Prof Van Tam was presented with a Vietnam international team football shirt after his speech.
His mentor Richard Madeley, a former Professor of Public Health at the University of Nottingham, would often use football analogies and gave him some lasting advice:
“Put enough bread out on the water, make opportunities, meet people, give generously to people and enough of it will come back – not all of it – but enough.”
Since his studies, Prof Van Tam has forged a remarkably successful career working for the Department of Health & Social Care, the Army, the WHO, Roche and Smith Kline Beecham.
He spoke about how his father Paul Nyugen, a Maths teacher in Lincolnshire who moved from Vietnam to the UK in the 1960s, would have seen the current close bonds between the two countries as “completely impossible”.
“He was one of a tiny number of Vietnamese people who came to the UK not in the 1970s or 1980s but in the very early 1960s and he came here not for economic or political reasons but for love - he married a British woman.”
He remembered his dad wanting to become British and featuring in a local newspaper.
“My dad said ‘as I teach these kids Mathematics, so they teach me what it is to live in England and what life and society is about, and I’m learning as much from them as I am teaching’.
“So, I gained that perspective, this very ingrained early memory, that communication is about active listening and it’s a two-way process. It’s about playing back what you hear, what you see and reflecting on it all the way through your life, and I like to think that’s been quite important in terms in how to respond in the first few years of the pandemic.”
Find out more about Middlesex University's close partnership with Vietnam.