Special measures will be in place to protect mourners at the funeral of Dawn Sturgess, the woman who died after exposure to the nerve agent novichok.
The funeral directors have been working with Public Health England (PHE) and the crematorium to ensure the safety of the congregation, according to Rev Philip Bromiley, who will lead the service in Salisbury on Monday.
“One of the things that it will entail is there won’t be any pallbearers, and the coffin will be in situ before we arrive, so obviously there’s probably been precautions around that and the coffin itself,” Bromiley said.
“I have got every confidence in the powers that be that they know what they’re doing.”
PHE did not comment on the funeral arrangements, but a spokeswoman repeated the general advice to the public that the risk remains low.
What is novichok?
Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate compounds, but the chemicals used to make them, and their final structures, are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries.
The most potent of the novichok substances are considered to be more lethal than VX, the most deadly of the familiar nerve agents, which include sarin, tabun and soman.
While the novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively over-stimulating muscles and glands, one chemical weapons expert said the agents did not degrade fast in the environment and had ‘an additional toxicity that was not well understood. Treatment for novichok exposure would be the same as for other nerve agents, namely with atropine, diazepam and potentially drugs called oximes.
The chemical structures of novichok agents were made public in 2008 by Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist living in the US, but the structures have never been publicly confirmed. It is thought they can be made in different forms, including as a dust aerosol.
The novichoks are known as binary agents because they only become lethal after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than conventional nerve agents.
While laboratories that are used to police chemical weapons incidents have databases of nerve agents, few outside Russia are believed to have full details of the novichok compounds and the chemicals needed to make them.
Sturgess, 44, and a mother-of-three, died on 8 July after she and her partner, Charlie Rowley, came into contact with the nerve agent. Sturgess and Rowley were found unconscious on 30 June, with police later confirming they had been exposed to novichok.
Rowley, who was discharged from hospital earlier this month, said on Sunday he was struggling to come to terms with his ordeal.
“Everything just runs around my head, from Dawn to what’s happened,” he told Sky News. “I just can’t process it.
“I just love her to bits. She was a lovely person. She had a lot of friends who cared for her, and she’ll be missed by lots. It’s just quite a lot to take in, you know, but I feel terrible for Dawn’s parents and those children, what they’re going to go through.”
Rowley, 45, said the deadly nerve agent took 15 minutes to poison Sturgess after she sprayed the “oily” substance on to her wrists, believing it was perfume he had given her as a gift.
Bromiley said he had been working with Sturgess’s mother and father to plan the funeral, with Sturgess’s daughter choosing the first hymn, Shalom Shalom.
“That hymn has set the tone for the whole service,” Bromiley said. “We will be wanting to do two things. One is to celebrate Dawn’s life, and two, really give thanks for the person that Dawn was because she was a really kind, loving, generous person and I think the family are really keen that that comes across in the service.
“But also, we want to pray that shalom, that peace, will come and permeate through the service and help everyone who’s at the service, and also pray for peace for the family, for the city and for everybody involved.”
Sturgess and Rowley were involved in the second nerve agent incident in four months, following the case of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who were found unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury in March.