UK police rule out nerve agent poisoning after two more fall ill in Salisbury, where Russian ex-spy was poisoned

High street cordoned off by hazardous-response officers, but police say they have found no evidence of Soviet nerve agent Novichok, which was used in an apparent assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal in March

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 September, 2018, 8:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 September, 2018, 6:12pm

British police say there is no evidence that the nerve agent Novichok was involved in case of two people who became ill in a Salisbury restaurant, but the premises remain closed off.

Wiltshire Police said on Monday that the two people who fell ill at an Italian restaurant had been clinically assessed and there was no trace of Novichok.

The man and woman who got sick at the Prezzo restaurant in Salisbury remained in hospital under observation but “we can now confirm that there is nothing to suggest that Novichok” was involved, Wiltshire Police said in a statement.

“A cordon will remain in place around Prezzo at this time as part of ongoing routine enquiries. All other areas that were cordoned off will now be reopened,” the statement added.

Police have not released the names of the two diners, a man in his 40s and a woman in her 30s.

Authorities responded with extreme caution after two diners became ill, in light of the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter and the subsequent poisoning of two others who came into contact with Novichok.

Roads were closed and a hazardous-response team dispatched on Sunday night in the English city, which spent months with quarantine tents and investigators in full-body protective gear combing for evidence after Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious on a bench in March.

Its residents were put back on edge in June when a man and a woman living in a nearby town was admitted to hospital with signs of exposure to the same Soviet-made nerve agent, Novichok. The woman, 44-year-old Dawn Sturgess, died. Britain’s counterterrorism police said this month they think Sturgess’ boyfriend found a counterfeit perfume bottle containing remnants of the substance originally applied on the front door of Skripals home in Salisbury.

British prosecutors have charged two Russian men in absentia with poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. They have alleged Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov were Russian intelligence agents.

In an interview on Russian television last week, the men said they visited Salisbury to appreciate the cathedral’s classic architecture and denied they worked for Moscow’s military intelligence or committed any crimes.

Salisbury City Council leader Matthew Dean tweeted that there had been “a number of false alarms since the Skripal poisoning”.

He said it was correct for emergency service personnel to start with a “highly precautionary approach until they know otherwise”.

Hazmat teams like those deployed in Salisbury could be replaced by fleets of drones and robots to investigate future chemical attacks, Britain’s Ministry of Defence has announced.

Defence chiefs are to trial using drones to examine sites for chemical agents and biological threats to avoid exposing emergency services and personnel to risk.

A trial involving scientists from the military research unit Porton Down has taken place at the Fire Service College in Gloucestershire, the ministry said. The project has involved the testing of a drone that can relay 3D images and detect chemical agents using a laser system.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said the innovation would keep Britain at the forefront of dealing with similar attacks.

“Following the reckless nerve agent attack in Salisbury this year, we have seen the bravery and professionalism of our armed forces, emergency services and MoD scientists,” he said. “They have worked tirelessly to investigate and clean up deadly contaminated areas. This project will ensure we stay at the forefront of dealing with such heinous attacks, whether on our streets or on foreign battlefields.”

The UK prime minister’s official spokesman said the interview contained “lies and blatant fabrications” that were “an insult to the public’s intelligence”.

Scotland Yard has said they believe Petrov and Boshirov to be pseudonyms and that the men’s real identities have been covered up by the Russian government.

Additional reporting by The Guardian