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 Salisbury – which was the epicentre of the novichok poisoning – to Wiltshire Council.
This would be the last of 12 sites across Salisbury and the surrounding area to be declared safe.
It can also be revealed that the armed forces are creating a new regiment specialised in tackling the threat posed by chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons in a rebuilding of a capability that had been allowed to wither because of cost cuts.
The expansion was in part prompted by the 4 March novichok attack, which Britain has accused Russia’s military intelligence agency of carrying out.
Lieutenant General Ty Urch, the officer in charge of military operations in the UK, including the armed forces element of the response to the Skripal poisoning, said: “This has been a forcing function.”
He praised the work of soldiers, sailors and airmen who played a part in the decontamination effort, codenamed Operation Morlop, along with other government agencies.
Commander of Home Command said: “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 on Christie Miller Road 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.
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.
Ultimately the roof 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.
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.
“We have lots of military people living in those cities so that will be a huge relief for them.”
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 in Salisbury, where the father and daughter were found collapsed on a bench, and a pub and restaurant they had visited.
The other three sites, all in Amesbury, became infected in a second, related incident when almost three months later Dawn Sturgess, a local woman, and her partner found the perfume bottle suspected of being used by the would-be assassins.
They were exposed to the poison and Ms Sturgess later died – the only person to be killed.
A further three or four locations where there were concerns of exposure to novichok also had to be painstakingly checked – though they turned out to be clear.
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.
This content was originally published here.