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Amesbury Incident

Volume 792: debated on Thursday 5 July 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement regarding the events that have been unfolding in Amesbury and Salisbury. This morning, I chaired a meeting of the Government’s emergency committee, COBR, covering the ongoing investigation in Amesbury. Separately, I have been briefed by the security services and the counterterrorism police.

As many of you will now know, a 45 year-old man and a 44 year-old woman were found to be unwell at a property at Muggleton Road in Amesbury on Saturday. Both are British citizens. Paramedics attended the scene and admitted the pair to the A&E department at Salisbury District Hospital. Here they were treated for exposure to an unknown substance. Further testing by expert scientists in chemical warfare at the Porton Down laboratory confirmed this to be the nerve agent of the type known as Novichok. This has been identified as the same nerve agent that contaminated both Yulia and Sergei Skripal. The pair are currently in a critical condition and I am sure the House will want to join me in wishing them a swift and full recovery. I would also like to express my sincere thanks to the emergency services and staff at Salisbury District Hospital for their tireless professionalism and the dedicated care they are providing.

I understand that there will be some concerns about what this means for public safety. In particular, I recognise that some local Wiltshire residents are feeling very anxious. Let me reassure you that public safety is of paramount importance. Public Health England’s latest assessment is that, based on the number of casualties affected, there is no significant risk to the wider public. Its advice is informed by scientists and the police as the facts evolve. Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, has confirmed that the risk to the public remains low and has asked that the public follow the advice of Public Health England and the police.

She has also advised that people who have visited the areas that have been recently cordoned off should wash their clothes and wipe down any items they were carrying at the time. She has also urged people not to pick up any unknown or already dangerous objects such as needles and syringes. This is not new advice and it follows what was said in March. We have a well-established response to these types of incidents and clear processes to follow.

I also want to add that all the sites that have been decontaminated following the attempted murders of Sergei and Yulia Skripal are safe. All sites which have been reopened have undergone thorough testing and any items that may have harboured residual amounts of the agent were safely removed for disposal. We have taken a very robust approach to decontamination and there is no evidence that either the man or the woman in hospital visited any of the places that were visited by the Skripals. Our strong working assumption is that the couple came into contact with the nerve agent in a different location from the sites which have been part of the original clean-up operation.

The police have also set up two dedicated phone numbers for anyone with concerns relating to this incident. Salisbury District Hospital remains open as usual and is advising people to attend routine appointments unless they are contacted to state otherwise.

We are taking this incident incredibly seriously and are working around the clock to discover precisely what has happened, where and why. Be assured that we have world-leading scientists, intelligence officers and police on the case. Local residents can expect to see an increased police presence in and around Amesbury and Salisbury. All six sites that were visited by the pair before they collapsed have been cordoned off and are being securely guarded as a precaution. An investigation has started to work out how these two individuals came into contact with the nerve agent.

Around 100 detectives from the National Counter Terrorism Policing Network are working to support this investigation, alongside colleagues from Wiltshire Police. Samples from the victims have been tested by experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, who are world-renowned experts in the field.

Obviously this incident will evoke memories of the reckless attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal earlier this year, given the similarities. I know that many of you will question whether this incident is linked to that one. This is the leading line of inquiry. However, we must not jump to conclusions and we must give the police the space and time to carry out their investigations. The police’s work will take time. But we are ready to respond as and when new evidence comes to light and the situation becomes clearer.

Following the events in Salisbury earlier this year, we rapidly worked with international partners at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, to confirm our identification of the nerve agent used. Through a process of extensive, impartial testing and analysis, our findings were confirmed correct beyond doubt.

The use of chemical weapons anywhere is barbaric and inhumane. The decision taken by the Russian Government to deploy these in Salisbury on 4 March was reckless and callous. There is no plausible alternative explanation of the events in March other than that the Russian state was responsible—and we acted accordingly.

The British Government and the international community immediately and robustly condemned this inhuman action. In light of this attack, the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats from our shores, and we were joined by 28 of our closest international allies in this action, from the United States to Ukraine, who expelled over 150 of the Russian state’s diplomats in similar condemnation of this action.

We have already seen multiple explanations from state-sponsored Russian media regarding this latest incident. We can anticipate further disinformation from the Kremlin, as we saw following the attack in Salisbury. 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 so that the most appropriate course of action can be taken.

Let me be clear, we do not have a quarrel with the Russian people. Rather, it is the actions of the Russian Government that continue to undermine our security and that of the international community. We will stand up to actions that threaten our security and the security of our partners. It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks or our towns to be dumping grounds for poison. We will continue our investigations as a matter of urgency, and I will keep the House and the public updated on any significant developments.

I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement given by her right honourable friend the Home Secretary in the other place earlier today.

The first duty of government is to keep citizens safe. The Government have our full support for the important work they are doing in that respect. The two individuals who have been poisoned have been named as Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess. They will be getting the best possible care at Salisbury District Hospital. I join the noble Baroness in wishing them a speedy and complete recovery. I also join her in recording my thanks to all the emergency services workers who attended the scene, the staff at the hospital, the security services and the staff of Porton Down laboratory.

The nerve agent, which has been confirmed as Novichok, is the same as that used to contaminate Yulia and Sergei Skripal four months ago. Local residents will be concerned that this is the second poisoning in four months and that Amesbury is approximately eight miles from Salisbury.

I note from the Statement that the working assumption is that the couple have come into contact with the nerve agent in a different location from the sites that were part of the clean-up operation a few months ago. I am not going to speculate about what could or could not have happened: that helps no one, particularly those trying to get to the bottom of all this and the local residents. The public will, however, want reassurance, and timely information—based on the facts as they emerge—will be welcome and reassuring.

Can the Minister therefore confirm that every assistance is being given to the emergency services working on the ground and that funding will never be an issue? Will she also say something about support for Salisbury and Amesbury? The attack hit the business and retail sector very hard and it is important that it is helped. It is probably a matter for another department, but support for the retail sector, which needs people to visit the centre of Salisbury and now Amesbury, is nevertheless an important part of the response, in collaboration with the local authority led by her noble friend Lady Scott of Bybrook.

I agree with the Minister that we have no quarrel with the Russian people. The welcome that England supporters have received in Russia has been most heartening to watch on television. We do, however, need an explanation from the authorities for what has happened here. It is regrettable that we have not had it to date, as is the disinformation referred to by the noble Baroness in her Statement.

I again thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and assure her of the full support of the Opposition Benches, which we also offer to all the emergency services workers and the staff at the hospital, along with our security services and the staff at Porton Down. I look forward to further updates from the noble Baroness in due course.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier in the other place. This is clearly a shocking and unexpected development, and our best wishes go to the couple and those who responded—and continue to respond—to this incident.

I understand that the incident is ongoing and we should not make assumptions, but does the Minister agree that there appears to be a lack of motivation, which might suggest that this is not a deliberate poisoning? In the last 10 minutes or so, the police have said that the couple have been contaminated by handling a contaminated item. Somebody from the Chief Medical Officer’s staff told the “Today” programme this morning that in high concentrations the nerve agent can be absorbed through the skin but in lower concentrations it has to be ingested. Is there any indication that the victims may have injected the substance? It would clearly be reassuring to members of the public if that was the case.

On the one hand, a chemical weapons expert is quoted by the BBC as believing that the latest victims could have come across the Novichok that poisoned the Skripals after it had been haphazardly disposed of. On the other hand, a Russian scientist who first exposed the Novichok programme cast doubts on that theory, saying that Novichok would have decomposed in the four months since the attack on the Skripals. The Minister talked about the expulsion of Russian diplomats across the globe as a consequence of what happened before, but what if the Russian scientist is right that this is a fresh batch of the nerve agent? What would the international implications of that be? The Russian scientist told the BBC that this must have been a separate incident because Novichok was unstable, especially in damp conditions. Can the Minister add to this?

I know that it is difficult, as I am about to tell the House in the debate that follows this Statement, to provide clear information in the early days following such an incident. That is difficult to do but the public need to be told whether this is a new attack, which could throw doubt on the whole matter, or whether it is an accidental poisoning caused by leftovers from the Skripal attack. Residents are very concerned. What can the Minister say to reassure them? When we had the previous nerve agent attack, we learned more from the media than we learned from the Minister’s Statement in the House. Can she provide the House with some additional information that will help your Lordships to understand what has happened and reassure the residents in the area affected?

I thank the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Paddick, for their very constructive comments and questions, as is usual following this type of incident and the making of such a Statement to your Lordships’ House.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, talked first about the names of the victims. I know that they have been in the press but we have not confirmed their names. He and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about local residents being very concerned. Of course they will be concerned; they have had two almost identical incidents in their vicinity in the last few months. I hope that the words of Dame Sally Davies and the police have provided some comfort to them that the risk is low, while saying that people should remain vigilant and not touch things such as syringes, which might be dangerous, and that if they see anything they are concerned about or feel unwell, they should immediately contact the helpline.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned the different location and he is absolutely right. Not only did the events of the weekend take place in a different location but the couple in question do not appear to have visited any of the original sites. He also asked whether there would be constant reassurance of the public and constant updates to them as time goes on. We have seen over the past couple of days that the police and Dame Sally Davies have been very forthcoming in the information that they have given to the public. Any funding or assistance required will of course be forthcoming. Some 100 counterterrorism police detectives have been deployed and mutual aid from other police forces has been sent to Amesbury to assist.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned a crucial point: the local economy. I know it suffered the first time round and people will be very concerned. Another department, MHCLG, provided a lot of assistance in the aftermath of the previous event and I expect it will deploy similar assistance to the local area following this one.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked several questions, some of which I will not be able to answer. One was about whether it was a deliberate poisoning. The police have said that the poisoning was due to handling a contaminated item. He spoke about injecting the poison and made a point about the Russian scientist who said that in his opinion it was a fresh batch. I cannot substantiate any of those points. As the investigation proceeds the facts will become much clearer and it is not for me to comment on them at this stage.

My Lords, after the Salisbury attack general practitioners in the area and the emergency department were advised to phone 111 for information. That resulted in delays in clinicians understanding what to do. It is completely understandable that complete secrecy is needed while an investigation goes on for that investigation to be secure and for national security. However, there is also a need to link with somewhere such as the National Poisons Information Service so that clinicians at the front line can receive appropriate targeted clinical information. Has such a system now been put in place following the concerns expressed by GPs last time? Unfortunately, we all feel that there may be further incidents in the future involving acts of terrorism.

It is a sad thing to say, but because there has been a previous attack I think the whole system has operated far more smoothly this time. The noble Baroness is right to point out that any delays could be life-threatening to the people involved. There is a number to ring. I understand that the hospital is the one the Skripals were in, so there is experience of dealing with this. I assume that what the noble Baroness requests is happening and that the whole process will run a lot more smoothly this time.

My Lords, after the Salisbury attack the response of our allies, NATO and the international community was very heartening. Notwithstanding the successful football tournament going on in Russia at the moment, can my noble friend reassure the House that the initial response of our allies, whatever the circumstances of this incident, remains steadfast and determined and shows solidarity with the British people on this?

I can confirm, as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary confirmed this morning, that a number of international engagement opportunities are coming up. Let us not forget that we are at the beginning of an investigation, but of course there will be opportunities for international engagement as time goes forward. I fully expect that our international partners will stand with us this time, as they did last time.

We are all grateful to the Minister for the Statement even though there is only a limited amount that she can tell us. What arrangements have been put in place for the health and welfare of the first responders from the emergency services who will have attended the scene?

The noble Lord raises a very important point, because he will remember that, last time, they were clad from head to toe in special suits to stop contamination. Their welfare is of the utmost importance. They risk life and limb to attend these things, and I assure him that their health and welfare is of the utmost concern to us, and we have of course put measures in place to ensure their safety.

My noble friend will be aware that the UK Armed Forces have trained for a very long time to be able to counter chemical weapons attacks. The training is not very pleasant. My noble friend Lord Robathan and I will both have stood in a CS gas chamber and been told to eat a dry biscuit. It is not fun training.

We have a range of technologies available to detect and counter chemical agents. A persistent nerve agent can normally be detected by hand-held equipment, which is held at unit level. Am I right in believing that Novichok cannot be detected in that way? Does that partially account for why the clean-up operation has been so time-consuming and difficult, and why the authorities were unable to find any discarded equipment? They could go to obvious places where it might have been discarded, but it was very difficult to detect.

My noble friend is absolutely right to point out that Novichok is a military-grade nerve agent. Therefore, the usual methods of detection are impossible. It is a lengthier process and far more difficult to pinpoint—hence, possibly, why we have had the events of the past few days.

My noble friend is quite right to refuse to speculate about the causes of this, but will she ask the media not to speculate about possible causes as to why this couple were found in a distressed situation? Some disgraceful things have been said in the media which should not have been aired there; that was most unhelpful.

I thank my noble friend for making that point. Perhaps the media should have guarded against naming the couple in the first place before their families had been informed, which is the reason that the Government have not named the couple. I have read all sorts of things in the media over the past 24 hours. Thank goodness I do not get my briefings from the media, else we might have heard all sorts of nonsense across the Dispatch Box this afternoon. I totally support a free press, but my noble friend is right: this reporting has been irresponsible.

I thank my noble friend and noble Lords on all sides of the House for expressing their support for the emergency services, who do such an amazing job in the circumstances. I especially endorse Salisbury hospital and its A&E. As a resident near Salisbury I have used it often and thought it was brilliant with the Skripals—to have the expertise in these awful weapons of mass destruction, which I think meant that they saved the lives of that wretched couple. I very much wish that the latest unfortunate incident will have a similarly good outcome.

I want to ask a different question about Salisbury itself. My noble friend mentioned that some things have been done to try to alleviate the hit on the shops and market of Salisbury from the incident, but I go there every Saturday. There are lots of closed shops. There was some help with parking. Can she either give us a little more detail or ask the MHCLG to write to us with details of what has been done for the people of Salisbury and may be done in future, because this is a double whammy?

I join my noble friend in paying tribute to the emergency services. It must be very frightening to go in to assist, knowing that this substance is so deadly, but trying to save lives at the same time. I agree with her that Salisbury hospital has done an incredible job saving the lives of the Skripals, and I hope it will save the lives of the couple involved in this incident.

I will ask the MHCLG to write to my noble friend about how it has helped the local economy following the previous incident and how it intends to bring confidence back to a place which must have been really badly shaken by this latest incident. She is absolutely right: help is badly needed for the town to get back on its feet.

Does my noble friend agree that it sounds unlikely that this was an attack aimed at individuals? In its social, economic and psychological impact, is not an incident such as this much closer to something such as a cyberattack and does it not underline the vulnerability of modern societies to these new, mysterious and amorphous risks?

On the first question, clearly I cannot comment, because the investigation has not reached its conclusion but that certainly seems to be what is promoted in the press. In terms of likening it to a cyberattack, agents such as Novichok have in fact been around for some time—it kind of reminded me of the Cold War, where such methods were used; I know that, after the first attack, people seemed to compare it with the Cold War era. The number of different ways, including cyberattacks, that can debilitate a town, region or even a country are growing and we are right to be concerned.