Wiltshire novichok poisonings

March–July 2018

In Salisbury, on 4 March 2018, Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with 'Novichok', a group of nerve agents that attack the nervous system. The poisoning took place in the centre of the town and represented a public health threat since it was possible that other members of the public had been exposed to the substance via traces on a bench, in a pub, and at a restaurant visited by the victims.

Inital PHE response

It took several days to establish what had happened. Once authorities confirmed the use of Novichok, Public Health England (PHE) initially advised on 7 March that affected sites had been secured and there was a low risk to the public.

PHE published another, more detailed response on 11 March (7 days after the incident), still describing the incident as low-risk but confirming 'limited' contamination of the pub and restaurant. The national agency therefore advised residents and visitors who had visited the pub or restaurant on the day of the incident to wash their clothes and personal items thoroughly to avoid potential harm through continued exposure to low level traces on their belongings.

Some commentators criticised the public health response as slow and unclear, including Sir Liam Donaldson, the former Chief Medical Officer (CMO). He also stated: 'I would have liked to have seen more individual risk assessment, perhaps the establishment of an emergency health centre [...] and a more individualised approach to dealing with people's concerns.'

Later developments

4 months after the Salisbury incident, there was a second, related novichok incident in Amesbury when, on the evening of 3 July 2018, Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley fell ill after coming into contact with a contaminated object. Dawn Sturgess later died as a result. 2 days later, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that it was the same nerve agent as that used to poison Yulia and Sergei Skripal and PHE issued detailed guidance for members of the public who had visited any of five potentially contaminated locations. In particular, the agency warned people not to pick up unknown objects.

In September, following the identification of suspects involved in the Salisbury attack, the CMO Professor Dame Sally Davies issued a statement reiterating the low level risk to the public and the advice not to pick up unknown objects.

Source(s)

Public Health England.
Public Health England statement regarding events in Salisbury [webpage].
Public Health England; 2018.

Donnelly M.
Chief medical officer comes under fire from predecessor over 'slow' response to Salisbury poisoning .
The Telegraph; 12 March 2018.

Public Health England.
PHE statement on incident in Amesbury [webpage].
Public Health England; 2018.

Davies S.
Amesbury nerve agent incident: statement from Chief Medical Officer [webpage].
Public Health England; 2018.