DAME Jenny Harries told the Covid-19 inquiry there was no firm evidence that wearing face masks during the pandemic slowed the spread of disease.

The former England deputy chief medical officer, who lives in Monmouth and now heads up the UK Health Security Agency, described evidence about masks as “uncertain”, and warned that telling people to wear them may have given people a “false sense of security” about the safety of mixing with others.

She also told the inquiry last week that being thrust into the national spotlight standing next to the prime minister talking about the pandemic on live TV “was something that clearly I had not expected”.

On Government advice around initially wearing home made masks, she said they had a “very low evidence base” about them, and understanding the scientific effects was tricky.

“There was a risk that if you encouraged this, people would stop doing the “really important” thing. That was distancing,” she said.

“If people just thought they could get a bit of t-shirt, put it around their face, and that would solve all our problems and we could go back to normal [then] that was not going to be a good public health intervention.”

And more than three years on, Dame Jenny says the evidence on masks is still “uncertain”, partly because it’s so difficult to design a study to accurately test their effectiveness in real world conditions.

She also told the inquiry that her advice in March 2020 that it would be “entirely clinically appropriate” to discharge infected patients from hospitals into care homes was “a bleak picture” of what would need to happen if there was an “enormous explosion of cases”.

She wrote at the time that it was a “prospect none of us would wish for”, and admitted last week that it might “sound awful” but it was a “top line prospect” of what might be needed if hospitals were overflowing.

She also said she advised the government on safeguarding risks relating to domestic violence early on in the pandemic, but in her role she could not formulate policy

Dame Jenny, who was educated at Monmouth School for Girls, added that her role had been that of an adviser, and as “somebody to try and support public understanding”, not about defending government policy.

“I will not have been in the same meetings as [England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty] would have been, or other colleagues making strategic decisions; and yet it may well be me standing on the podium,” she said.

She always tried to give the “right messages” at a “very, very frighten 19ing time for many members of the public”, she replied in answer to a question about whether she had put a ‘positive spin’ on the situation.

It was important to “reduce what you’re saying in ways that are simpler and less scientifically detailed but nevertheless gets the key public health message across”, she said.

Inquiry lawyer Andrew O’Connor KC asked her if she was guilty of “over confidence” in the UK’s preparadness to fight the pandemic at the start of 2020, and cited an email she sent saying we were better equipped than the first European nation to be badly hit, Italy.

Dame Jenny said she may have “read too much” into the difference in the health systems of the UK and Italy, but was referring to the way the latter’s system was organised “rather than the fact, actually, that the virus was going to be so problematic”.

She said “an external objective assessment” had ranked the UK second out of 100 countries in prepardeness to fight a pandemic, but “in retrospect it feels wrong”.

Asked about saying “the country has a perfectly adequate supply of PPE” in March 2020, Dame Jenny said she had “no direct responsibility for PPE at all” and had to rely on information provided to her.

She was told a new supply system for getting PPE was in place “and that turned out to not be the case”.

“In fact I apologised as soon as I could when I was next on the stand,” she says.

Dame Jenny said she also encouraged the World Health Organisation’s message of “test, test, test” early on in the pandemic. But the UK was struggling to test everyone because “at this point we had no more tests”, she says.

She was referred to an article where she was quoted as saying: “The key, she says, is to be transparent about the risks and build trust with the public.”

Dame Jenny told the inquiry her comments were based “particularly around data”, and said the public were “brilliant during the pandemic and they complied often with mandated requirements”.

She said the UKHSA is now trying to build dashboards so people can see what’s happening and make their own choices.