- Officer is ‘talking and engaging’
- Sergei and Yulia Skripal remain critically ill
- Home Secretary promises ‘robust’ response
- Cordon around Skripal home widened amid ‘flurry of activity’
The condition of the police officer first on the scene in Salisbury when a former Russian spy and his daughter were suspected of being poisoned by a nerve agent has improved, Amber Rudd has said.
The officer remains in a serious situation but is “talking and is engaging” in hospital, the Home Secretary said on Thursday.
The news comes as investigators continue to probe the source of the nerve agent attack, which left all three victims in intensive care. The targets of the attack Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, remain critically ill.
In an interview with ITV, Rudd said: “I’ve spoken to Mark Rowley this morning. The two targets are still in a very serious condition. The policeman is talking and is engaging, so I’m more optimistic for him. But it is too early to say. This is a nerve agent. We are still treating it as very serious.”
Speaking to the BBC, Rudd declined to say whether she knew exactly what the substance was, only adding that it was “very rare”.
She added: “I would say to the public who may be concerned that the chief medical officer, Sally Davies, has said that the risk to them is low.”
Later in the House of Commons Rudd told MPs that the poisoning was a “brazen and reckless” crime, adding that it was “attempted murder in the most cruel and public way”.
She reiterated that speculation on who carried out the poisoning should be avoided but stressed that police and the government were committed to do “all we can” to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“We will respond in a robust and appropriate manner once we ascertain who was responsible,” she added.
On Thursday afternoon the cordon around Skripal’s home was widened following a flurry of activity. A large blue forensic tent was erected on the street as more police and incident support vehicles arrived from South Western Ambulance Service.
Officers extended the cordon to seal off the whole of Christie Miller Road, although residents and their vehicles are allowed to come and go.
The Metropolitan Police Service said on Wednesday that they were treating the incident as attempted murder. The Met’s assistant commissioner, Mark Rowley, has not yet revealed the exact substance, or how it was administered.
Rudd also warned on Thursday there will be “nothing soft” about the UK’s response to the attack. She declined to say whether she regarded Russia as responsible for the attack, but said the government would put a plan in place to respond when the culprit is identified.
“Let me be clear, we are absolutely robust about any crimes committed on these streets of the UK. There is nothing soft about the UK’s response to any sort of state activity in this country,” Rudd said.
“You may not hear about it all, but when we do see that there is action to be taken, we will take it.”
Deadly nerve agents are liquid gases that can seep through the skin. Earlier this week, the United States said North Korea used the toxin VX nerve agent to assassinate leader Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother in Malaysia in 2017.
As police teams carried equipment from Skripal’s home on Wednesday night, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson renewed his warning that the UK will “respond robustly” if the poisoning was the result of “hostile activity” from another country.
It was revealed on Wednesday that Prince William has no plans to attend the football World Cup in Russia, but a royal source said his decision pre-dates the double agent poisoning.
St Thomas’s, in Salisbury city centre, will hold a service next month to acknowledge the emergency services’ response to the attempted murders.
The Rev Kelvin Inglis said: “This attack is a violation of the peace and prosperity of the city, and we shall respond next month with a service that will acknowledge what the various services have done, and will reclaim the city for the common good.
“This will include an open air ceremony at The Maltings, where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found. This will take place on Sunday 15 April at 3pm.
“In the meantime, this is primarily a tragedy for the people involved and our prayers are for them, most especially with Sergei and Yulia Skripal and the police officer who was made seriously ill while assisting them.”
WHAT IS A NERVE AGENT?
Nerve agents have been used to deadly effect in assassinations and conflicts of the past.
The toxic substance disrupts signals in the nerves, causing debilitating side effects which can be fatal.
Vladimir Putin – now in the frame following the attempted murder plot in Salisbury – drew international condemnation for defending the Syrian regime after it launched a suspected Sarin gas attack on its own people last year.
Different forms of it have evolved, including Sarin, VX and Tabun, all of which have very similar structures and appear to work in the same way.
Professor Malcolm Sperrin, a fellow of the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, has described how nerve agents work.
He said: “Nerve agents work by disrupting signals in nerves, at the synapses between nerves. Different agents work in different ways and have different volatilities. What we don’t know yet is what particular agent has been used here.
“I’m not aware of a nerve agent having been used in this way previously. Nerve agents are offensive weapons, and there has been some previous suggestion they might have been used in warfare around the world.
“Symptoms of exposure to nerve agents may include respiratory arrest, heart failure, twitching or spasms – anything where the nerve control is degraded.
“It is very unlikely there will be any issues in the environment, and it is very unlikely the nerve agent will still be around now.
“Nerve agents can cause death, but not necessarily at low-level exposure or with a minor dose.”