How Jonathan Van-Tam exposed Gavin Williamson’s no-show – Tom Richmond

THERE was nothing unremarkable about the conclusion of a Channel 4 News package this week on education and the non-availability of Ministers to defend the Government’s record. It’s often the case because of pressures of time – or a reluctance to answer difficult questions.

That was until Cathy Newman, one of the programme’s much-respected presenters, pointed out that Gavin Williamson had blocked every request since he became Education Secretary.

Even though it is understandable, given his lamentable record during the pandemic, that he might keep his distance from the broadcasters, Newman was pointing that he was absenting himself from as early as July 2019.

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After all, Channel 4 wanted to ask Williamson about mental health support for schools – a very legitimate issue.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Jonathan Van-Tam during a media briefing on coronavirus in Downing Street, London

But what does it say about his ability to lead education if he hides away on an issue like this either because he does not care or cannot articulate an adequate response?

Further evidence why the Scarborough-born MP is unfit for public office, his no-show preceded the extended Q&A that Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, undertook on Channel 4 News two nights later night its viewers.

A man just as pressed for time, if not more so, than the increasingly invisible Williamson, he provided an object lesson in how to answer difficult questions.

He was empathetic when a York grandmother asked if she could now 
hug her grandchildren after receiving 
her first vaccine – he appealed for patience.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

He was forensic with his responses when asked about vaccines policy; specifically over the validity of the decision to delay the second dose.

He was candid when asked if the vaccines would immunise people from the new strains of Covid – he was able to stress, without causing alarm, that some people might need to be vaccinated again as the science unfolds.

He was pragmatic – he told a viewer from East Yorkshire that it might be premature to book an overseas summer holiday.

And he was humble. Asked how he felt standing at the 10 Downing Street podium alongside politicians who had ignored the science at various stages, he described them as deeply committed and concerned individuals having to take decisions that will inevitably cause collateral damage to other parts of society. He likened their mission to sailing a ship while building the vessel at the same time.

Channel Four News presenter Cathy Newman.

After 30 minutes, Van-Tam – now widely known by his initials JVT – ended the session by saying: “I hope it was all useful.” How respectful.

It wasn’t just useful, it was essential public service broadcasting – and both Government advisers, and Ministers, should communicate this way more frequently to help the public better understand their decision-making processes. Even if such an exercise puts Gavin Williamson to shame. Again.

ONE thing puzzles me about the stance being taken by those Tory MPs from Yorkshire disputing the scaling back of vaccine supplies here.

Why are they not pressing for the UK Statistics Authority to publish the relevant data on a daily, or weekly, basis rather than leaving it open to interpretation when the Department of Health and Social Care’s communications record has not been the greatest?

Take Craig Whittaker, the Calder Valley MP, who has been retweeting statistics from the Conservative Party on social media on vaccine numbers.

I don’t blame him – he’s a Tory MP – but I would be in the best interests of all if more data, like vaccines, was corroborated independently when public trust is so critical.

FORMER minister Simon Clarke, the Middlesbrough East MP, was clearly trying to ingratiate himself with the Government whips when he asked this question to Will Quince, a Work and Pensions Minister, in Parliament about the future of the £20 a week Universal Credit uplift.

“Does he agree that the Leader of the Opposition calling for it to be scrapped is simply the height of opportunism and irresponsibility?” asked Clarke, who is one of those Tory MPs very sensitive to any criticism of the vaccine roll-out.

Of course the Tory Minister was going to acquiesce. “Remember: no Labour government have ever left office with unemployment lower than when they started,” said Quince.

But the Clarke-Quince mutual appreciation society failed to recognise that it is the Tories in power and their job is to ensure that jobless rate, and other benchmarks, return to pre-pandemic levels at the earliest opportunity.

ISN’T it odd that there’s always a photographer on hand inside Downing Street to picture Boris Johnson at key moments like the moment the EU trade deal was agreed – and now his first telephone call with President Joe Biden? A valuable use of taxpayers’ money or PR stunts? You decide.

PITY the prickly plight of hedgehogs now that they have an unlikely champion in Chris Grayling, the former Transport Secretary who says they “should be as well protected as any other popular but threatened British animal”.

They’re also words that will never be applied to Grayling.

LISTENING to Jonathan Agnew on Test Match Special the other morning, I didn’t realise the art of sweeping was so technical until I clocked that he was describing his attempt to clear his wife’s car of snow rather than Joe Root’s batting in Sri Lanka. The joy of radio.