Operation to decontaminate Salisbury of Novichok set to be declared over

Decontamination of Sergei Skripal House Christie Miller Road Salisbury

Published by Henrietta Creasey at 6:11am 1st March 2019. (Updated at 11:19am 1st March 2019)

More than 13,000 hours have been spent working to remove traces of the nerve agent used to poison the Skripals almost a year ago.

Britain is set to signal the end of an unprecedented operation to clean up a trail of nerve agent that was left by an attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter almost a year ago.

The government is expected to announce the handover of Sergei Skripal's house in Christie Miller Road to Wiltshire Council.

This would be the last of 12 sites across Salisbury and Amesbury to be declared safe.

Salisbury Ambulance Station July 14th 2018
Emergency service vehicles were among those that needed to be decontaminated

Lieutenant General Ty Urch, the officer in charge of military operations in the UK has praised the work of soldiers, sailors and airmen who played a part in the decontamination effort, code named Operation Morlop, along with other government agencies.

"Novichok is probably one of the most complicated and dangerous agents in existence.

"So the courage that it has taken our young men and women in the armed forces to go back across that line (into contaminated areas) time and time again I think is phenomenal."

Mr Skripal's house was the hardest to clean up, taking some three to four months.

Two suspected Russian intelligence officers are accused of spraying the front door handle with novichok, infecting Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Sergie Skripal home
Sergei Skripal's home in Christie Miller Road

A decontamination team conducted a search of the entire house to identify all other possible traces of the agent.

But the ease at which objects can be cross-contaminated meant the search could have helped transfer traces of poison around the building.

The roof has had to be removed and taken away, though the rest of the structure is still standing, surrounded by white tarpaulin.

The deadly risk of exposure to even the tiniest speck of Novichok meant the specialist personnel had to wear protective gear as well as dry suits and respirators.

Each time they entered what the military call the "hot zone" - an area of contamination - they had to go through stringent checks.

The layers of protection made working in the height of summer last year particularly tough.

Maltings Decontamination April 2018
Soldiers carried out decontamination work in the Maltings last Spring and Summer

In total, the military carried out some 13,000 hours of work in the protective clothing, taking part in 250 bespoke decontamination missions.

They collected around 5,000 samples - ranging from ambulances and cars to chairs and pieces of plaster - to be taken away for testing by scientists at the specialist government laboratory at nearby Porton Down.

Many of the items were then destroyed.

Lieutenant General Urch said:

"The Home Office, the Ministry of Defence and Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) hopefully will announce that the decontamination work that has been going on for the last 355 days in Salisbury and Amesbury should come to a conclusion leaving the 12 complicated sites safe.

"It is going to be a huge relief for an awful lot of people, not least of which the good citizens of Salisbury and Amesbury.

The decontamination mission was unprecedented for the military in terms of its length, with the commander saying this was the longest time in living memory for the armed forces to be deployed on an operation on the UK mainland in support of the government.

Nine of the sites that needed decontaminating were affected following the 4 March attack on the Skripals.

They included the Maltings shopping centre where Sergie and Yulia were found collapsed on a bench, and The Mill pub and Zizzi's they had visited.

Skripal

The other three sites, all in Amesbury, became infected in a second, related incident when almost three months later Dawn Sturgess, from Durrington and her partner Charlie Rowley found the perfume bottle suspected of being used by the would-be assassins.

While the government is expected to announce the last of the 12 main sites as safe, it will not be possible for officials to give a guarantee that there are no other yet-to-be-discovered traces of Novichok elsewhere.

However, the imminent end of Operation Morlop will be seen as a significant moment.

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