Officials face nerve agent backlash
Residents outraged as they are told up to 500 people may be at risk a week after attack on spy
HUNDREDS of people could have been contaminated by the nerve agent that poisoned a Russian double agent in Salisbury, officials said, as locals last night questioned why they were not warned sooner.
A week after Col Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were left in a critical condition following an attack in the city, residents were advised to take action to protect themselves.
Anyone who visited the same pub or restaurant as the pair last Sunday was told to wash their clothes immediately and clean all jewellery, mobile phones, spectacles and other items with antiseptic wipes.
Theresa May will today lead a meeting of the National Security Council, attended by the heads of all three intelligence agencies, after which she is expected to formally link Russia to the Salisbury poisonings.
Scientists at Porton Down, the Government’s chemical warfare laboratory, are understood to have been carrying out final tests overnight that will prove beyond reasonable doubt that the nerve agent used in the attacks was made in Russia. Mrs May is then expected to announce fresh sanctions against Russians close to Vladimir Putin, as well as the expulsion of some Russian diplomats from the UK.
As the police and military operation continued in Salisbury, staff at the Zizzi restaurant, where the couple dined shortly before falling ill, were told to destroy any clothes they had been wearing at the time and also visit their doctor for a health check. There were claims last night that the nerve agent had been found all over the pair’s table.
Drinkers at the popular Mill pub in the city were also urged to take similar steps if they were there between Sunday lunchtime and Monday night, when the venue was eventually sealed by police. Traces of the nerve agent – which has been identified but that officials have refused to name – have also been found at the pub, it is believed.
England’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, estimated that around 500 people could have been affected in the time window. She insisted the risk to the public remained low, but conceded that the nerve agent could pose a risk with “prolonged, long-term exposure” to the skin.
Last night there was growing anger among Salisbury residents over the delay in passing on information to the public. Maureen Jones, 73, who has lived in Salisbury her entire life, said: “I can’t understand why it has taken a week for them to tell people.”
Dan Munday said: “Enough of this cloak and dagger stuff, let the public know what’s going on. It is our city after all.” Another resident who was in the Mill pub at about the same time as Col Skripal and his daughter, said he was outraged that he was only now being told to take preventive measures.
He said: “I am not reassured because I do not know all the facts. What are the long-term effects?”
While health officials insisted the risk to the public was minimal, members of the military, wearing chemical protection suits, continued to seal off parts of the city. Just minutes after holding a press conference intended to reassure the public, scores of military personnel, police officers and paramedics descended on Bourne Hill police station and offices in the city.
Two military tents were set up and dozens of Army personnel donned protective suits as they moved a series of vehicles from the car park. It is thought the vehicles could have been used by police officers who attended the scene of the attack last Sunday.
Det Sgt Nick Bailey, who was one of the first responders, remains in a serious condition in hospital, although he is able to sit up and talk.
Mystery still surrounds the exact circumstances of last week’s poisoning, with uncertainty remaining over when and where Col Skripal and his daughter were targeted. Philip Ingram, a former intelligence and security officer who has studied chemical warfare, said all the indications pointed towards a liquid nerve agent similar to the one used in the attack on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother last year.
Mr Ingram said: “The fact that traces have been found at multiple locations suggests this is almost certainly a thickened liquid that would have a very persistent effect. It could have been administered in a variety of ways, either by brushing into the target or perhaps by smearing it on clothing that would come into contact with his skin. But there are still many unanswered questions, not least how the police officer
‘Enough of this cloak and dagger stuff, let the public know what’s going on. It is our city after all’
has come to be so ill.” John Glen, the MP for Salisbury, said he was less than satisfied with the response: “It is an evolving investigation ... but I am somewhat frustrated that Public Health England did not inform me what was going on.”
He added: “I also find it slightly odd that the chief medical officer is making a statement to camera in London about this situation when the people want some reassurance here in Salisbury.”
Dr Jenny Harries, the joint director of Public Health England (PHE), defended the decision to issue new guidance a week after the initial poisoning.
She said: “This is about a very, very small risk of repetitive contact with traces of contamination that people may have taken out. The advice we’re giving today about washing clothes – very simple things ... that will remove that risk.”
THERESA MAY is expected formally to blame Russia for the Salisbury poisonings today after meeting the heads of Britain’s intelligence services and will immediately come under pressure to prevent Russians with links to Vladimir Putin entering the UK.
The Prime Minister will lead a meeting of the National Security Council, which will be attended by the heads of MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the Armed Forces, where she is expected to be handed evidence that puts Russian involvement in the attacks beyond reasonable doubt.
It will be only the second time the NSC has met since the attempted murders of Sergei Skripal, a former spy, and his daughter, Yulia, and sources described it as a “significant moment” in the ongoing investigation.
Scientists at Porton Down are understood to be working on the final tests necessary to isolate the country of origin of the nerve agent used in the attack.
Mrs May is preparing to announce changes to the law that would make it easier to expel Russians suspected of human rights abuses. It would simplify the process of expelling foreign citizens who do not have a criminal record
‘The legislation that was brought in following the Alexander Litvinenko case is not being used to deny visas or freeze assets’
who are considered a risk to national security.
But she will come under intense pressure to go further by creating an independent ombudsman who could order the Government to remove people from the country who have so far been allowed to stay.
Andrew Mitchell and Richard Benyon, the Conservative MPS who have been working with the Government for months on changes to existing laws around sanctions, have insisted that an independent assessor must be appointed so the public can appeal if they do not think ministers have taken tough enough action against Russia.
Mr Mitchell said: “There is a very important principle at stake here, because the legislation that was brought in following the Alexander Litvinenko case is not being used to deny visas or freeze assets.
“It’s because there is no independent assessor to hold ministers to account.”
Mr Mitchell and Mr Benyon will table an amendment to the forthcoming Sanctions and Anti-money Laundering Bill after Easter to force the changes through if necessary.
Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, said: “The Home Secretary already has a power to exclude individuals from the UK if she believes that their presence here is not conducive to our national security or the public good.
“So it’s not strictly necessary, but we’re seeking to reach an accommodation with those who’ve put this amendment forward. Let’s see if we can come to a proposal which works for everyone.”
Mrs May is also expected to send some Russian diplomats home straight away.
In the longer term, she will ask Nato to back an increased military presence on Russia’s western borders.
Mr Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC that Mrs May had reneged on a promise she made while Home Secretary to do everything possible to prevent a repeat of the attack on her husband.
She said she had received a letter from Mrs May that said: “I and this government are clear that we must continue to pursue justice for your husband’s killing and that we will take every step to protect the UK and its people from such a crime ever being repeated.”
Mrs Litvinenko added: “But unfortunately it’s happened again. It means something was not done.
“And the lesson that we received after the murder of my husband was not learned.
“We know nobody was punished. And people who have been a killer of my husband, they’re not even suspects because the police investigation probut
vided no evidence. They [may] still be in Russia, and [prime suspect] Andrei Lugovoy, he is a member of parliament, and British parliament still communicating with this parliament.”
Mrs May could make a Commons statement linking Russia to the poisonings as early as this afternoon, following the NSC meeting, which will also be attended by Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, and Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary.
A government source said: “When we are in a position to attribute blame, we will do so.”
Army personnel in protective suits on the streets of Salisbury yesterday, where they removed a series of cars from a car park
Specialists from the RAF and Marines remove a police car and ambulance from Salisbury for testing, left and bottom
Chief Constable Kier Pritchard, of Wiltshire Police, thanked the public for their patience
Soldiers drafted in as part of the investigation in Salisbury put on protective clothing as they begin to remove contaminated materials to be sent for analysis at the nearby Porton Down defence laboratory