In the absence of any detailed information, it is hard to avoid concluding that the two recent occurrences of what seem to be identical forms of nerve-agent poisoning are directly connected. This is certainly the impression being created by Government responses to the latest incident. The Home Secretary’s comments in the House are clearly aimed at Russia; he said:
“Our strong working assumption is that they came into contact with the nerve agent in a different location to the sites that were part of the initial (Skripal-incident…Ed) clean-up operation.”
He went on:
“As we did before, we will be consulting with our international partners and allies following these latest developments. The eyes of the world are currently on Russia, not least because of the World Cup. It is now time that the Russian state comes forward and explains exactly what has gone on.
“Let me be clear: we do not have a quarrel with the Russian people. Rather, it is the actions of the Russian government.”
“We will stand up to the actions that threaten our security and the security of our partners. It is unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns to be dumping grounds for poison.”
Fine words – but is this the start of a campaign of Russian aggression or merely the aftershocks of a one-off incident?
What is curious about both the Skripals and the Amesbury-couple’s symptoms is that each pair’s symptoms apparently manifested at almost the same time. It indicates an effective, and near simultaneous, dose of agent being received by the two people in each case. Given the complications of delivering nerve agents in general, this must be a point of interest for the investigators. The second contamination might also provide a very clear pointer to the way in which those who carried out the attack planned the whole effort.
Some have commented on the longevity of the agent. Those familiar with old Cold-War or Gulf War-style NBC or CW training will no doubt have been drilled in the cleaning of “persistent” and “non-persistent” agents, in which even the former evaporated or were destroyed by UV after a few days. Novichok is not one of these; it can, apparently, retain its toxicity for months – and, one has to assume, be particularly long-lived if stored in a container of some sort. Perhaps that is the key to the puzzle now being investigated.
The Amesbury incident also emphasises the fact that, in spite of those brave words from our senior politicians, there is in fact no certain way of preventing this sort of attack from being carried out almost “at will” in the UK, Western Europe – or anywhere else, for that matter. That said, it is clear that Porton Down, working with local hospitals, is able to control the effects if presented with small numbers of patients. Perhaps coping with these recent these attacks will be key to developing an effective antidote that could, in the event of a more widespread attack, save a considerable number of lives.