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Salisbury poisoning medic tells how hospital dealt with nerve agent
Novichok decontamination work being undertaken in the area where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found poisoned and unconscious in Salisbury Pic: Shutterstock

26 Feb 2020 / international Print

Salisbury medic tells how hospital treated nerve agent

The medic who took charge during the near-fatal poisoning of a Russian double agent in Salisbury in March 2018 said that he feared facing corporate manslaughter charges at the time.

Speaking at the Slándáil National Security Summit in DCU yesterday, Dr Paul Russell explained that he is a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials (CBRN) clinical management expert.

Blurry vision

Dr Paul Russell said that as patients were admitted with headaches and painful blurry vision, to the medium-sized general hospital where he is chief medical officer, he was awoken by his director of nursing who said “we have a problem”.

“When the director of nursing rings you up and says we have a problem, it means the [medical] Trust has a problem and you are the cause of that problem,” he said.

He said that his life flashed before him with that phone call.

He said he felt some relief when it was revealed that one of those poisoned was Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer, and a double agent recruited by MI6, and his daughter Yulia Skripal.

High treason

After being charged with high treason, Skripal was released from Russia to the UK as part of a spy swap in 2010.

“He came to a quintessential English city where nothing happens,” said Dr Russell.

He recounted how the hospital changed its initial context of dealing with a drug-related incident to an assassination attempt.

The clinicians did not initially know what substances the would-be assassins had used, he said.

“As the CBRN adviser, I had to do the best for my patients,” he said.

“The key thing was to stop the staff, and the public coming into the hospital, from coming to harm,” he said.

Ruthless

He said that contrary to the public image given in interviews, the assassins were actually ruthless, professional and imaginative people who had access to sophisticated weapons.

“You only need a tiny amount of something to kill an individual,” Dr Russell said.

A police officer was also taken into intensive care after apparent exposure to the remnants of the toxic agent at Sergei Skripal's residence.

The clinical team initially examined opioid diagnoses, and examined the anaesthetic agent used in the previous Moscow theatre siege.

Weaponised pharmaceutical

“We came to the concept of the weaponised pharmaceutical,” he said – not a classic chemical warfare agent but a drug in common use which has been weaponised.

The fact that none of the medical staff attending the Russians had become unwell suggested a non-volatile agent.

The media was offering bribes to get photographs of the Russians, and using tricks to try and get into the hospital, Dr Russell said, but standard confidentiality applied.

The Novichok nerve loss agent was eventually found and a clinical conference was set up, but met outside in the open.

Big doses

Dr Russell described the decision to use ‘big doses’ of an antidote which stabilised the patients and gave medics cause for optimism.

Sergei Skripal was also a type two diabetic and his liver functioning was affected by the poisoning.

“The neurological recovery was quite chaotic to start with,” said Dr Russell.

'Secret space'

Staff were unable to use normal communication tools and operated a ‘secret space’ during the incident.

Bed linen, equipment and mattresses were also disposed of, with expert advice.

All the patients affected eventually recovered.

“Salisbury hospital did not close at all during these events and that’s a credit to all the staff that were there, who were going past banks of cameras, press and all sorts, to get to work, to continue the functioning of a small district general hospital,” Dr Russell said.

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