The former commander of the British regiment that specialised in detecting chemical weapons has claimed the authorities were blindsided by the Salisbury attack as he criticised the lack of information given to the public about it.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who was a commander of the now disbanded Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment, claimed the UK was paying the price of the lack of action after chemical attacks in Syria and Iran.
De Bretton-Gordon said people in Salisbury were fearful and that the government should have been more open about what the city faced earlier.
He was backed by some members of the public who have contacted the Guardian to said they did not feel they had the right information early enough and that a hotline should be launched for anyone with health concerns.
The focus of police and military attention has widened to a village just outside Salisbury and a car park that overlooks the spot where the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, collapsed.
Public Health England (PHE) has urged hundreds of people who visited the Zizzi restaurant and Mill pub in Salisbury – where the Skripals ate and drank before collapsing more than a week ago – to wash their clothes and possessions.
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De Bretton-Gordon, who advises a medical charity in Syria, said: “We’ve been dealing with this kind of thing in Syria for five years and we find the more information we give people, particularly civilians, the better.”
His former regiment was disbanded in 2011 as part of a costcutting defence review. “I expect we need a new one as soon as possible,” he said.
The UK was blindsided by the Salisbury attack, he said. “There are not many people around with current and deep experience of things like this.
“I also think this is symptomatic of the fact that chemical weapons have become the norm. We haven’t done anything about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Iran. Now we’re paying the price.
“If [the Russian president Vladimir] Putin is responsible, he probably doesn’t think anything’s going to happen because we haven’t done anything about chemical weapon use in Syria and Iran. We must reimpose the taboo, the red line, on the issue of chemical weapons, otherwise every dictator, despot, rogue state and terrorist is going to use this stuff.”
John Glen, the Conservative MP for Salisbury, said residents were bewildered, disconcerted and angry – but he was convinced they were safe.
However, among those who contacted the Guardian was man who was close to the bench before after the Skripals collapsed but before it was cordoned off.
He has underlying health issues and has developed other symptoms during the week including vomiting, terrible headaches and muscle seizures. He said he phoned PHE around 11am on Monday morning for advice and they called him back at 4pm and advised him to dial 111.
He was concerned that not enough advice had been given to local people. “There hasn’t even been a press release regarding symptoms. I was with my young child in the area last week, after we had been told that there was ‘no risk’. Members of the public have been left wholly in the dark.”
A local woman said she believed there was a discrepancy between the advice that the public were given and what she was witnessing.
“To see people wearing tremendous protective clothing and then [PHE] saying to the rest of us: you’re fine, wash your clothes, use baby wipes is just extraordinary.”
She added: “It doesn’t make sense when I’m looking at a newspaper photograph of five men in space suits and we’re just walking around in ordinary clothes. There should at least be a hotline for people to ring.”
There was a flurry of activity in and around Salisbury on Monday afternoon.
Police and military personnel arrived in Winterslow, a village about six miles north-east of the city. Some were spotted in hazmat protective suits.
Attention focused on an Ashley Wood Recovery van. Last week police were seen at the company’s yard in Salisbury and a BMW believed to belong to Skripal was removed at that time.
The first floor of a Sainsbury’s car park that overlooks the bench where the Skripals were taken ill was sealed off and all cars removed. Three uniformed police offices were guarding the area.
A Wiltshire man was jailed on Monday for breaching a cordon around the bench where the Skripals were found.
Jamie Knight, 30, who was drunk, shouted racist obscenities against Russians and bit an officer and a security guard as they tried to restrain him.
Police have confirmed that Skripal and his daughter were in Salisbury city centre by 1.30pm. It is not known if they walked from his home or whether they drove or were driven in.
Between 1.30pm and around 4pm
Skripal and his daughter strolled around Salisbury and visited the Zizzi restaurant on Castle Street and the nearby Mill pub. They are believed to have been in Zizzi for about 40 minutes from 2.30pm.
A CCTV camera at Snap Fitness in Market Walk captured two people initially thought to be Skripal and his daughter. The woman appeared to be carrying a red handbag. Later it became clear the pair were probably not the Russian and his daughter. Police have been keen to speak to the couple.
The same camera caught personal trainer Freya Church. She turned left out of the gym and in front of her saw Skripal and the woman on a bench at the Maltings shopping centre. She said the woman had passed out and the man was behaving strangely. Church walked on.
Footage that emerged on Friday from a local business showed that people were still strolling casually through Market Walk.
A member of the public dialled 999. The Friday footage shows an emergency vehicle racing through the pedestrianised arcade shortly after 4.15pm. A paramedic also ran through. Police and paramedics worked on the couple at the scene for almost an hour in ordinary uniforms.
The woman was airlifted to hospital; Skripal was taken by road.
Images taken by a passerby show that officers were still clearly unaware of the severity of the situation. They did not have specialist protective clothing and members of the public also strolled nearby.
Police told Salisbury Journal they were investigating a possible drug-related incident. At about this time officers identified Skripal and his daughter and by Sunday evening they were at his home – in normal uniform or street clothes. At some point DS Nick Bailey, now seriously ill in hospital, visited the Skripal house, but it is not known where he was contaminated.
Officers donned protective suits to examine the bench and surrounding areas.
Officers were hosing themselves down. It was not until the next day that a major incident was declared.