Few people had heard of Chris Whitty or Jonathan Van-Tam at the beginning of 2020. Now, months on from their Downing Street press conference debuts, England’s chief medical officer Prof Whitty and his deputy Prof Van-Tam are proving a hit with shoppers.
An online search reveals the faces of the two unlikely cult heroes on novelty mugs, T-shirts, beer labels, birthday cards and even prayer candles. “We have Britney Spears and Michael Jackson designs,” says Hannah Spiers, co-owner of gift business Twisted Pickle. “Chris Whitty is outselling them all.”
The professional dancer began selling novelty mugs and alcohol labels alongside her cousin Daniel Guise, when she was unable to work in lockdown. Since May, she has sold 900 Chris Whitty mugs – the majority in the run-up to Christmas.
And she is expecting to sell more in the new year. “We are trying to work out why we have sold so many,” she says.
Prof Whitty first appeared on our television screens during Downing Street’s coronavirus daily press briefings, back in March. Over the last few months he’s become a familiar sight, usually standing next to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, providing an update on the pandemic.
His briefings have been peppered with requests of “next slide please” – as he explains graphs showing the UK’s fluctuating R number and other complex data. The apparent catchphrase has become the inspiration behind Hannah’s bestselling mug.
“Our Chris Whitty ‘next slide please’ mug has been our biggest seller of the year. In fact, in the past 24 hours it’s sold 10 times our second best seller,” she says. “It really has gone crazy.”
Lisa Whitehorn, from Waldron in East Sussex, is one of hundreds of people who have bought Chris Whitty novelty prayer candles from Kent-based company My Sainted Aunt.
“I went on the website and immediately fell for Chris,” she says. “He has been my light in lockdown.” She says the candles are “tongue-in-cheek”, adding: “We all need a bit of a laugh.”
And of course the scientist wouldn’t qualify as a true cult hero without his own fan club.
Sean Ryan says it was early in the pandemic that he spotted Prof Whitty’s growing cult status – and that’s when he set up the Chris Whitty Appreciation Society. The Facebook group has more than 5,000 members and some fans share their artwork on Instagram.
“I think Chris Whitty captured the imagination and hearts of the public as this respected, seemingly shy and understated scientist, at a time we needed a calm and reassuring voice,” Sean says.
But it’s not just Prof Whitty who is gaining a cult following in the pandemic. Sean says fellow scientist Prof Van-Tam picked up “a legion of fans” for his “no-nonsense” attitude when former No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings was accused of breaking lockdown rules in May.
Prof Van-Tam, also a regular face at the Downing Street briefings, has won fans for his ability to explain scientific concepts in layman’s terms – along with his penchant for colourful analogies and metaphors.
In one analogy he compared one stage of the pandemic to scoring an equaliser in the 70th minute of a football game. Another likened the development of the Covid vaccine to a train journey.
Sean’s business, Badly Drawn Celebs, sells t-shirts, posters and mugs, with celebrity designs – including those of Prof Whitty and his deputy Prof Van-Tam.
Through his first round of sales of mugs, t-shirts, phone cases and posters – featuring Prof Whitty, Prof Van-Tam and their colleague Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, he made £3,500 – and donated it all to NHS charities.
So why do we adopt such unlikely heroes?
Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a consumer psychologist at University College London, says it is “no surprise” people have started creating merchandise featuring the scientists.
“We are always struggling to find something to explain things, so we need to have a brand ambassador – they have become brand ambassadors,” he says. “They are part of the solution so they are seen as heroes.”
Dr Tsivrikos says fashion also has an influence. “We always want to be relevant,” he adds.
At the moment the “key denominator” we all share is Covid-19, he says. “So people will look for heroes, look for characters, look for personalities. People are inspired always by personalities.”
He predicts we will begin to see “I got vaccinated” t-shirts as the UK’s vaccination programme progresses – giving people a sense of identity. “We all need visual clues to declare who we are,” he says.
So why does Hannah think her Prof Whitty merchandise is proving so popular?
“Possibly because he sums up 2020 so well,” she replies. “It’s sad that me and my friends have lost work,” the professional dancer adds. “But this (her business) has kept me busy, I have Chris Whitty to thank for that.”