The Scottish Mail on Sunday
THE NOVICHOK TIME BOMB
‘Nerve agent was designed with a four hour delay to allow assassins to escape before alarm raised’ ‘Clear gel smeared on spy’s door was less toxicasaresult...and gave chemical experts time to find antidote’
‘It was a boutique nerve agent for assassinations’
THE nerve agent used to poison former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter was specially designed to take about four hours to kill them so their assassins could flee Britain.
Security sources told The Mail on Sunday that to help the agents avoid capture, the Russians developed a less powerful ‘boutique’ Novichok that could be absorbed through the skin. Novichok is normally administered as in gas form and kills its victims within minutes.
This adjustment to the nerve agent, made after exhaustive scientific tests conducted at a secret Russian scientific establishment, proved a crucial flaw in the double murder bid. While it allowed the would-be murderers to escape, it also gave doctors and scientists time to identify the Novichok and treat the patients with antidotes.
Last night Hamish de BrettonGordon, the former commander of Britain’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment, who has had access to secret intelligence relating to the poisoning, praised the Salisbury medical team for their remarkable work in saving the lives of the Skripals.
He said: ‘This botched double murder attempt was defeated by the brilliance of British scientists and the doctors in Salisbury who, under immense pressure, came up with a bespoke set of treatments to thwart a boutique chemical weapon specifically designed for assassinations.’
Last night the 66-year-old Skripal and his daughter Yulia, 33, were continuing to recover at Salisbury District Hospital. Mr Skripal, who had previously been given just a one per cent chance of survival by his family, is now in a stable condition – while Yulia is recovering so fast she could soon be discharged.
Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who was left in a serious condition after rushing to the aid of the Skripals after they collapsed and was also treated by the same medical team, was released from hospital last month.
The Skripals are also understood to be providing police and the Security Services with vital information that could lead to the culprits being identified.
The account provided by security sources challenges claims from Moscow that its nerve agent could not have been used in the Salisbury attacks because it is too toxic for anyone to survive exposure to it. Based on the latest briefings by UK security sources, The Mail on Sunday can also reveal for the first time today how:
The Novichok was produced in the form of a clear, odourless gel which was smeared over the handle of Sergei Skripal’s front door in Salisbury early on Sunday March 4.
Russian agents watched Sergei Skripal for a fortnight and chose to strike on a Sunday morning so no postmen or delivery men would be exposed accidentally to the nerve agent. Any third parties touching the door handle before the Skripals would have required the agents to reapply the gel to the door handle, at the risk of being seen doing so.
Completely by chance, doctors with specialist chemical weapons training were on duty at the hospital when the victims were admitted. They treated Sergei and Yulia Skripal with an atropine (antidote) and other medicines approved by scientists from Porton Down, the government’s top secret scientific research laboratory.
The Mail on Sunday can also reveal crucial new details about the Skripals’ movements on March 4. Until now it had been thought that they left the house on Christie Miller Road, Salisbury, at 9.15am and did not return there before they were taken ill that afternoon. This previous timeline strongly suggested that their attackers must have struck overnight. Now it seems the Russian agents smeared the door handle with nerve agent in broad daylight after the Skripals had left the house.
Last night security sources suggested the Skripals returned to the £400,000 house at about 11.30am. Sergei is understood to have been contaminated when he unlocked the front door while Yulia is thought to have touched the handle after her father.
By then he had smeared most of the gel off the door handle on to his hands. As a result, her symptoms of exposure to the nerve agent were more mild than his.
A source said last night: ‘The Kremlin wanted to get its agents out of Britain before the Novichok
could be identified. So they reduced its toxicity and used it in a gel form rather than as a gas – had the Skripals inhaled the nerve agent they would have died very quickly.
‘The Russians still banked on Sergei and Yulia dying as a result of their exposure, even though they had effectively watered it down. Their recovery has been received with great disappointment in Moscow. Their survival is an embarrassment to President Putin who likes to think his security services can kill anyone, anywhere, and get away with it. They usually do.’
Two doctors with expertise in chemical weapons attacks were on duty at Salisbury District Hospital that afternoon.
The pair had recently completed a training course at Porton Down, which enabled them to quickly recognise the symptoms of exposure to a nerve agent.
Their expertise and decision making proved invaluable. The Mail on Sunday has been told how these doctors treated the Skripals, and local police officer Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who was also exposed. The doctors ran enzyme level tests on the three victims which confirmed the use of a nerve agent. They then summoned scientists from nearby Porton Down.
The scientists then ran further tests which specifically identified the nerve agent to be Novichok. They were then able to administer the atropine.
Last night, Col Hamish de BrettonGordon added: ‘I hope that in time the individuals from the hospital and Porton Down who defeated the Russians receive the credit they deserve.
‘By contrast, the Russians deserved their misfortune on the day for instigating such a cowardly attack.’
The Mail on Sunday has also learned how Sergei Skripal’s house is expected to be demolished as a result of the contamination. This is thought to be more cost-effective than instigating an inch by inch search of the property for further traces of Novichok.
The Zizzi Italian restaurant and The Mill public house which were both visited by the Skripals in the hours before they fell ill may also be knocked down.
This week the Government is expected to erect 9ft fences at key sites in Salisbury linked the poisoning while scientists continue their painstaking work to find clues.
A security source said: ‘The semi-permanent structures may remain in place until autumn this year. Civilian security guards will take over patrolling from police guarding the sites soon.
‘This means cordons around the Skripals’ home may be there for at least another six months.’
This botched double murder attempt was defeated by brilliance of British scientists COLONEL HAMISH DE BRETTON-GORDON