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14 December 2020

T-shirts, Christmas cards and “JVT”: The cult status of UK government scientists

How Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van-Tam became British pop culture icons.

By Chris Stokel-Walker

They’re the public faces of the government’s fight against coronavirus – but England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty and his deputy Jonathan Van-Tam have also become faces on T-shirts, jumpers and Christmas cards this festive season.

Enterprising entrepreneurs have emblazoned Whitty and Van-Tam’s faces on clothing and cards that are selling by the thousands. At the time of publication, 150 people had bought a T-shirt printed with an image of Van-Tam – or “JVT” – pointing into the distance and peering over his glasses, with only small and XXL sizes left in stock.

The T-shirts and jumpers, which cost £10.99 at checkout on eBay, have earned Alex Dutton and Victoria Lackenby, the Portsmouth-based owners of a small printing and party business, more than £2,000. 

Van-Tam and Whitty have attracted cult followings for their wonkish style in press briefings, with Van-Tam’s varied and increasingly elaborate analogies involving goalkeepers, flight paths and trains proving popular. In line with internal polling conducted by the government, which shows the deputy chief medical officer is the most trusted person to communicate the risks of coronavirus, merchandise bearing Van-Tam’s image also appears to be more popular than that dedicated to his boss.

[See also: Editor’s Note: A new politics of the common good and Jonathan Van-Tam’s mixed metaphors​

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Nevertheless, two long-sleeved jumpers featuring Whitty, each costing £16.99, have sold a dozen times, while one T-shirt featuring his face plastered in front of a neon pink triangle has been sold 89 times. 

In retail at least, both England’s medical officers are more popular than the Prime Minister, with a Boris Johnson T-shirt printed by the same company selling 32 times. A similar T-shirt featuring Rishi Sunak has only been sold 18 times.

The popularity of this kind of merchandise is unsurprising, says Heinz Brandenburg, a political scientist at the University of Strathclyde. “It is perhaps a British pop culture take, but you similarly have Christian Drosten in Germany and Anders Tegnell in Sweden who have reached almost cult status,” he says. “They are the faces of the pandemic, more so than politicians.

“They are the faces of the government in the pandemic who are not tainted by being politicians, like Johnson and [Matt] Hancock,” Brandenburg adds. “While some of the media has tried at times to vilify them for what they see as emphasising public health over the economy, the public tends to be still more in favour of strict measures and trusting government scientists more than politicians, because they think JVT or Whitty do not have an agenda.”

On eBay and Etsy, a website that focuses on handcrafted gifts, the owner of Derbyshire-based Pencil Rewind, a small company producing greetings cards, is selling £2.99 Christmas cards featuring Van-Tam and Whitty wearing Santa hats.

“I created the cards with the main incentive of cheering people up during these difficult times,” explains the owner Julie, who did not give her last name. 

“I think Chris Whitty and JVT are just fantastic people, offering important simple information to keep us all safe,” she says. “We have all been following their every word and amazing long list of metaphorical explanations on the briefings, and they have become part of our everyday lives and conversations.”

The cards, titled “GUV.RONA, Christmas 2020”, bookend Van-Tam’s face with the words “Merry Christmas… Over”, echoing the way the deputy chief medical officer ends his contributions to videolink press conferences. Whitty’s card comes in three designs, with one reading “Merry Christmas… next slide please”.

“I also print personal messages inside the cards, and I can see from the messages people add that the cards are being sent to cheer up family members and loved ones,” says Julie. “Sometimes [they’re] for a birthday, or for Christmas, or sometimes just because they haven’t been able to hug all year.”

[See also: Sweden’s Anders Tegnell: We did not pursue “herd immunity” against Covid-19​]

While the cards and T-shirts may be providing much-needed levity in a dreary year, those who have worked with the government’s scientific advisers are less certain they’d see the lighter side of things.

Gabriel Milland, a former No 10 adviser who prepared both men for their regular press conferences throughout the spring and early summer, says: “I think they will be hugely embarrassed. Chris especially is very shy. He doesn’t enjoy the limelight one bit but sees it as part of the job. We won’t be seeing him on I’m a Celebrity…

But “JVT is more relaxed”, he says, adding: “Both are much more interested in explaining what is going on than being famous.”