The former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were deliberately poisoned with a nerve agent in a case that is now being treated as attempted murder, the police counter-terrorism chief has said.
Scotland Yard assistant chief commissioner Mark Rowley said the police officer who was first to the spot where Skripal was found in Salisbury on Sunday afternoon was “seriously ill” in hospital. His condition had deteriorated, Rowley said, adding: “Wiltshire police are providing full support to his family.”
Describing the poisoning as a major incident, Rowley said scientists had identified the substance used. He refused to reveal what the specific poison was.
All three were suffering from “exposure to a nerve agent”. Detectives now believed that Sergei and Yulia Skripal were specifically targeted, he added, in a deliberate act. They remain critically ill in hospital.
Although further details are awaited, the suspicion in Downing Street will be that the Kremlin has attempted another brazen assassination operation on British soil. Moscow will furiously deny involvement, but Theresa May will have to consider how the government might respond should the police and other evidence point to Russia and its multiple spy outfits.
Unlike in the case of Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with a slow-acting radioactive cup of tea, detectives got to the scene in Salisbury quickly. Hundreds of officers were now working around the clock, Rowley said. They were examining CCTV footage from the city centre and building a detailed timeline of events, he added.
An unidentified man and a woman spotted strolling in the alleyway close to the bench where Skripal was poisoned are likely to be of intense police interest. The woman has blond hair and was holding a large scarlet bag. CCTV captured them around the time Skripal collapsed.
The man appears much thinner than Skripal, who was recorded on CCTV on 27 February, buying milk and lottery scratchcards from a local shop, Bargain Stop.
Rowley urged anyone who visited Salisbury city centre and who had not spoken to detectives to get in touch. He appealed to the public to send any images or footage from the area to the police website.
Scientists at Porton Down have assisted in the investigation, which is being led by Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, SO15, with significant help from the intelligence agencies.
The investigation comprises multiple strands. Among them is whether there is any more of the nerve agent in the UK, and where it came from. Intelligence sources said on Wednesday they were so far maintaining an open mind about motives and where responsibility for the attack rested.
The medical and chemical evidence and the effects on the victims point to a sophisticated nerve toxin. The best known are VX and sarin.
Chemical weapons experts said it was almost impossible to make nerve agents without training and dismissed the theory that an amateur could have assembled the substance using materials obtained from the internet.
“This needs expertise and a special place to make it or you will kill yourself. It’s only a small amount, but you don’t make this in your kitchen,” one said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Nerve agents are not hard to make in principle, but in practice it takes specialised facilities and training to mix the substances safely. The raw materials themselves are inexpensive and generally not hard to obtain, but the lethality of the agents means they tend to be manufactured in dedicated labs. The main five nerve agents are tabun, which is the easiest to make, sarin, soman, GF and VX. The latter was used to kill Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur airport last year. VX is particularly stable and can remain on clothing, furniture and the ground for a long time without proper decontamination.
All pure nerve agents are colourless organophosphorus liquids which, after they were discovered to be highly poisonous in the 1930s, became the dominant chemical weapons of the second world war. Once made, the substances are easy to disperse, highly toxic, and have rapid effects. Most are absorbed swiftly through the skin or inhaled, but they can also be added to food and drink.
The agents take their toll on the body by disrupting electrical signals throughout the nervous system and the effects are fast and dramatic. Victims find it increasingly hard to breathe. Their lungs produce more mucus which can make them cough and foam at the mouth. They sweat, their pupils constrict, and their eyes run. The effects on the digestive system trigger vomiting. Meanwhile the muscles convulse. Many of those affected will wet themselves and lose control of their bowels. At high doses, failure of the nerves and muscles of the respiratory system can kill before other symptoms have time to develop. There are antidotes for nerve agents, such as oxime and atropine, which are particularly effective against VX and sarin, but they should be given soon after exposure to be effective.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer at the UK’s chemical, biological and nuclear regiment, said nerve agents such as sarin and VX had to be made in a laboratory. He said it was a complicated task: “Not even the so-called Islamic State could do it.”
Richard Guthrie, another chemical weapons expert, said: “Nerve agents, such as sarin or VX, require some fairly complicated chemistry using certain highly reactive chemicals. Small quantities could be made in a well-equipped laboratory with an experienced analytical chemist. To carry out the reactions in a domestic kitchen would be essentially impossible. Moreover, sarin is odourless, colourless and tasteless. Any tiny leaks of its vapour would be potentially fatal.”
Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, said on Wednesday the risk to public health from the incident was low. Decontamination work has been undertaken to make areas feared to have been affected by the poison safe.
The cabinet’s most pressing problem is how to formulate a political response if the trail – once again – leads back to Moscow. In previous eras, it might have been possible for rogue elements to lay their hands on toxic substances. But it is now unlikely that any operation to murder a defector could originate in Russia without a degree of official permission.
One former senior Foreign Office adviser suggested the Kremlin was taking advantage of the UK’s lack of allies in the US and EU, and its inability to do much about the Skripal case. He said the British government was in a “weaker position” than in 2006 when the two assassins sent by the FSB spy agency poisoned Litvinenko using radioactive polonium.
The adviser said the use of a nerve agent suggested a state operation, adding that its deployment in the centre of a sleepy cathedral city on a Sunday afternoon was “brazen”. “It says a lot about how seriously [the Russians] take us that they feel able to do something like this,” the former adviser said.
Sources close to British intelligence said further toxicology tests would be key in the days ahead. They warned that other factors or triggers might have been involved.
There was renewed activity in Salisbury on Wednesday afternoon as around a dozen police cars, fire engines and ambulances arrived in the city centre. Attention was focused on Sarum House, next door to the Zizzi restaurant, one of the locations sealed off by police. A dark-haired woman was escorted out by police officers and put in an ambulance.
Skripal and Yulia, 33, were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury on Sunday afternoon.
It has emerged that the pair had been in the city centre since 1.30pm, almost three hours before they collapsed.
The Metropolitan police said on Tuesday that due to the “unusual circumstances” its counter-terrorism unit would lead the investigation.
Officers are keen to speak to anyone who visited Zizzi restaurant on Castle Street and the Bishop’s Mill pub in the Maltings, both premises the Skripals are believed to have visited.
(September 7, 1978) Georgi Markov
In one of the most chilling episodes of the cold war, the Bulgarian dissident was poisoned by a specially adapted umbrella on Waterloo Bridge. As he waited for a bus, Markov felt a sharp prick in his leg. The opposition activist, who was an irritant to the communist government of Bulgaria, died three days later. A deadly pellet containing ricin was found in his skin. His unknown assassin is thought to have been from the secret services in Bulgaria.
(November 7, 2006) Alexander Litvinenko
The fatal poisoning of the former FSB officer sparked an international incident. Litvinenko fell ill after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium. He met his killers in a bar of the Millennium hotel in Mayfair. The pair were Andrei Lugovoi – a former KGB officer turned businessman, who is now a deputy in Russia’s state Duma – and Dmitry Kovtun, a childhood friend of Lugovoi’s from a Soviet military family. Putin denied all involvement and refused to extradite either of the killers.
(March 7, 2012) German Gorbuntsov
The exiled Russian banker survived an attempt on his life as he got out of a cab in east London. He was shot four times with a silenced pistol. He had been involved in a bitter dispute with two former business partners.
(November 7, 2012) Alexander Perepilichnyy
The businessman collapsed while running near his home in Surrey. Traces of a chemical that can be found in the poisonous plant gelsemium were later found in his stomach. Before his death, Perepilichnyy was helping a specialist investment firm uncover a $230m Russian money-laundering operation, a pre-inquest hearing was told. Hermitage Capital Management claimed that Perepilichnyy could have been deliberately killed for helping it uncover the scam involving Russian officials. He may have eaten a popular Russian dish containing the herb sorrel on the day of his death, which could have been poisoned.
(March 7, 2013) Boris Berezovsky
The exiled billionaire was found hanged in an apparent suicide after he had spent more than decade waging a high-profile media battle against his one-time protege Putin. A coroner recorded an open verdict after hearing conflicting expert evidence about the way he died. A pathologist who conducted a postmortem examination on the businessman’s body said he could not rule out murder.
(December 7, 2014) Scot Young
An associate of Berezovsky whom he helped to launder money, was found impaled on railings after he fell from a fourth-floor flat in central London. A coroner ruled that there was insufficient evidence that his death was suicide. But Young, who was sent to prison in January 2013 for repeatedly refusing to reveal his finances during a public divorce row, told his partner he was going to jump out of the window moments before he was found.
Speaking earlier, Rowley said: “Working alongside Wiltshire police and partner agencies, we continue to carry out extensive inquiries. This investigation is at the early stages and any speculation is unhelpful at this time.
“The focus at this time is to establish what has caused these people to become critically ill. We would like to reassure members of the public that this incident is being taken extremely seriously and we currently do not believe there is any risk to the wider public.”