A public health warning urging hundreds of people who visited a pub and restaurant where the Russian spy Sergei Skripal may have been poisoned to wash their clothes and possessions has triggered concerns about the speed of official responses to the Salisbury incident.
The advice from Public Health England (PHE) released on Sunday morning was aimed at as many as 500 customers who ate at the Zizzi restaurant or were in the Mill pub in the centre of Salisbury last Sunday and Monday.
The precautionary guidance reinforces suspicions that the nerve agent used on Skripal and his daughter a week ago was first administered inside the restaurant. Traces of contamination have reportedly been found on and around the table where the two Russians sat. Some of the furniture and other items are said to have been destroyed to prevent further poisonings.
Scotland Yard, which is running the investigation, would neither confirm or deny claims of contamination at the restaurant. Police activity was also visible at the nearby Mill pub, where traces of the substance have also been found.
The public health notice said that although the risk was very low, repeated contact with clothing or items exposed to the nerve agent could still be a danger.
Jenny Harries, PHE’s regional director for the south of England, told a press conference on Sunday: “We have learned that there has been a limited contamination in both the Mill pub and in Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury.”
Asked about the delay in issuing the notice, Harries insisted it had been done in a timely fashion once the contamination was known about.
“We work with our colleagues here on a continuous risk-assessment basis,” she said. “When we get new information, we continuously risk-assess groups of people who may have become exposed from the evidence we have in front of us. As new evidence becomes available, we act on that immediately.”
Harries said that most people who were at the pub would have already washed the clothes they were wearing. Anyone who suffered symptoms such as nausea or blurred vision was more likely to have flu than be a victim of chemical warfare. She declined to reveal how the Skripals had been given the nerve agent, whether it was in powdered form in their food or dispersed as a liquid spray.
Cara Charles-Barks, the chief executive of Salisbury NHS foundation trust, said the two Russians remained in a critical but stable condition. She added that DS Nick Bailey, who was taken ill after attending the scene, was in a serious but stable condition. Kier Pritchard, acting chief constable of Wiltshire police, said Bailey was conscious and engaged with visitors.
The PHE statement said: “While there is no immediate health risk to anyone who may have been in either of these locations, it is possible, but unlikely, that any of the substance which has come into contact with clothing or belongings could still be present in minute amounts and therefore contaminate your skin. Over time, repeated skin contact with contaminated items may pose a small risk to health.”
It recommended reducing the risks in several ways. The statement said: “Wash the clothing that you were wearing in an ordinary machine using your regular detergent at the temperature recommended for the clothing. Any items which cannot be washed, and which would normally be dry cleaned, should be put in two plastic bags tied at the top and stored safely in your own home.
“Wipe personal items such as phones, handbags and other electronic items with cleansing or baby wipes and dispose of the wipes in the bin (ordinary domestic waste disposal). Other items such as jewellery and spectacles, which cannot go in the washing machine or be cleaned with cleansing or baby wipes, should be hand-washed with warm water and detergent and then rinsed with clean, cold water.”
Skripal and his daughter ate in the restaurant hours before they were found unconscious last Sunday. On Monday, Wiltshire police said the restaurant, on Castle Street, had been closed as a precaution, and it remains cordoned off.
The home secretary, Amber Rudd, said police had identified more than 240 witnesses and 200 pieces of evidence. The Ministry of Defence said armed forces personnel would return to Salisbury to assist for a third day on Sunday.
Commenting on the latest development, Alastair Hay, professor emeritus of environmental toxicology at Leeds University, said: “The sites may reveal where the agent was administered … It is important to note that nerve agents do degrade in the environment so you want to collect any evidence as soon as possible. Contact with moisture will lead to breakdown of the nerve agent: this is why people having visited the restaurant or pub in question last Sunday afternoon or Monday are being advised to wash their possessions.
“The advice to wash belongings is a precautionary measure. If no one has had physical symptoms suggestive of nerve agent contact by now it is unlikely that they are a risk.”
Different nerve agents decay at different rates, he added. Sarin breaks down more rapidly whereas VX is more persistent. Although the unusual nerve agent used in Salisbury has been identified by chemical weapons experts, its name and chemical composition has not yet been made public.