England’s deputy chief medical officer Prof Sir Jonathan Van-Tam is standing down, it has been announced.
Prof Van-Tam, who has advised the government on Covid-19 rules throughout the pandemic, is leaving the Department of Health in March and returning to his post at University of Nottingham.
The announcement comes a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologised for attending a party during lockdown. The timing of the announcement will inevitably lead to speculation that the political crisis which has been on going for weeks may have influenced Prof Van-Tam's decision.
Mr Johnson thanked the top doctor for his "extraordinary contribution to our country and his invaluable advice throughout the pandemic".
Prof Van-Tam was recently knighted in the New Year’s Honours list, which is advised on by the prime minister’s office.
Prof Van-Tam, affectionately nicknamed JVT by ministers, was a regular face at daily Downing Street Covid-19 briefings where he used his appearances to urge people to follow the coronavirus rules.
He was seen as a popular figure and his efforts to explain the crisis in understandable language won him many supporters. He often resorted to using footballing metaphors to break down the more complex details and relay them to the public in simple terms.
A keen football fan, he urged people to help avoid a "red card" from the Omicron coronavirus variant in November. He compared the situation to a football team for which two important players had received a yellow card.
He said the rest of the team had to "up their game" to prevent going down to 10 players – which in this case referred to people getting a booster jab.
He also told a Downing Street press conference that the initial vaccine was like having a full-strength team on the pitch and despite being weakened by injuries – the Alpha and Delta variants – substitutes had been able to "keep us in the game".
Since the vaccination programme was introduced in December 2020, Prof Van-Tam regularly worked in centres where doses are being administered, despite holding such as high-profile role.
Prof Van-Tam's departure will deal a blow to Mr Johnson as he fights to keep his political career afloat in the wake of the continuing “partygate” scandal engulfing Downing Street. The development came less than 24 hours after the prime minister admitted he had attended a garden party on May 20, 2020.
At that time, the country was in full lockdown and people were banned from mixing with those from other households, even outdoors.
Martin Reynolds, the prime minister's principal private secretary and a former ambassador to Libya, is said to have sent an email invitation to up to 100 people telling them "bring your own booze" to the picnic.
The gathering is one of several alleged parties said to have taken place in Downing Street during lockdowns.
The allegations are subject to a continuing inquiry led by senior civil servant Sue Gray.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has said the prime minister "must resign" if the inquiry concludes he broke the lockdown rules set by his own government.
More than 20 Cabinet members came out in support of Mr Johnson but the tepid backing offered by Chancellor Rishi Sunak was noticeable.
Mr Sunak, the second most powerful man in British politics, is regarded as the most likely contender to replace Mr Johnson in the event of a leadership challenge. He waited more than eight hours after the prime minister's apology to publicly comment. Rather than giving Mr Johnson his full backing, he said he was "right to apologise".
“I support his request for patience,” he said, while the inquiry into the Downing Street party allegations is conducted.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid thanked Prof Van-Tam, saying he was “hugely grateful for his advice and the vital role he has played in our vaccination programme".
Prof Van-Tam said his role had been the most challenging position of his career but it had been the "greatest privilege" to serve the public in such a post.
"My time as DCMO [deputy chief medical officer] has been the most challenging of my professional career, especially the Covid response," he said.
"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.
"I want to pay tribute to Professor Chris Whitty, the CMO [chief medical officer's] 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."
Prof Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said Prof Van-Tam had done an “outstanding” job and praised him for the “remarkable” ways in which he explained the pandemic to the public.
“Prof Van-Tam has been an outstanding DCMO and public servant,” Prof Whitty said. “I am profoundly thankful for his steadfast support, advice, leadership and commitment. His communication of public health advice and science has been remarkable.”
University of Nottingham vice-chancellor Prof Shearer West said the institute was "incredibly proud" of Prof Van-Tam’s work and praised him for playing a “major role in steering the nation through the Covid-19 pandemic”.
"His academic and leadership expertise is second to none and the integrity that he has demonstrated in his government role is fully aligned to our values. I know that he will take our university's reputation for excellence in medicine and health sciences to new heights," Prof West said.