A top scientist has told of the moment his blood ran “cold” when he learned the deadly nerve agent Novichok had been discovered in Salisbury.
Professor Tim Atkins, a senior scientific adviser to emergency services dealing with chemical and biological materials, said he had to step outside for air while he tried to comprehend the discovery made by his colleagues at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) based at Porton Down, near the Wiltshire city.
Recalling how the events unfolded three years ago in an exclusive interview with the PA news agency, Prof Atkins, who was made an OBE for leading Dstl’s work on Novichok, said he experienced a “real mixture of emotions” during the incident, it was something that had taken a “toll” and he was now a “slightly different person”.
He was on call on March 4 2018, and had spent the afternoon making snowmen with his children before having dinner when he received a phone call from a police officer who said two people had been found “extremely unwell” in Salisbury and the presence of a chemical agent was suspected.
Dstl scientists launched into tests to identify the substance over the coming days. Prof Atkins was at Devizes police station when his team called to relay the findings.
He said: “My blood really went cold. And the reason for that is, while I suspected that a chemical at this stage had been involved – and clearly a toxic one – I don’t think I ever predicted that it would be something so hazardous as Novichok.
“Obviously my mind turned to how am I going to explain to Wiltshire Police what’s being used and what the likely consequences of such a hazardous material being released in a city are likely to be.”
Highly trained scientists at Dstl’s unique and expansive high-security site in the middle of the countryside are – with strict safety measures in place – used to dealing with some of the most dangerous substances known like Ebola, Anthrax, and plague – all of which can kill.
But even so, news of the Novichok attack and the fact it had taken place in the city many staff call home had a “major impact” on the team, he said.
Prof Atkins described how tests carried out at the site helped guide authorities on how to achieve the “enormous” clean-up required – which saw the military brought in to help dismantle buildings and bury vehicles – to ensure the city was once again safe.
He said: “The scale of the clean-up was enormous. We have not seen anything like that here at Dstl in my time here. And I think there were a large number of challenges associated with understanding where the material was within a given scene.”
The Salisbury poisonings were just one example of Dstl’s work which is “absolutely vital to keeping the nation safe”, Prof Atkins – who now coordinates its research to help tackle coronavirus – said.
He added: “We are routinely providing advice and support to emergency services when they have to deal with these sorts of incidents and in their training.
“Clearly the Novichok incident was large in scale. And we responded equally … and I’m really proud to be part of that response.”
While the historical significance of the event is not lost on Prof Atkins, he is focussed on the future.
He said: “The country faces new threats, and it will continue to face threats and those threats evolve, and they change, as this organisation will evolve and change to meet those threats.
“I think this organisation is a national asset, it is there to deal with the most hazardous materials there are, and unfortunately, those materials do sometimes get used nefariously.
“And we will continue to prepare for those events, hoping that they don’t happen but making sure we take prudent preparations… if they do.”