The daughter of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal may lead police to her would-be assassins after it was reported she had regained consciousness for the first time since she was struck down in a suspected nerve agent attack in Salisbury.
The BBC reported Yulia Skripal was “conscious and talking”. It was claimed she had nerve agent on her left hand, and her father had it on his right hand.
Salisbury Hospital said her condition is “improving rapidly” and she is now no longer critical, raising hopes that she may recover enough to be able to give the police valuable information about the attack.
Such information could prove invaluable in the hunt for the suspected Kremlin hit-squad which targeted Col Skripal, who was convicted by the Russians for selling information to MI6 and came to Britain in 2010 following a spy swap.
Russia has denied it was behind the attempted murders. On Thursday, it announced the expulsion of more than 150 diplomats, including 60 Americans, in retaliation for the wave of Western expulsions of Russian diplomats over the poisoning.
Ms Skripal’s father, who collapsed with her on a bench close the River Avon after leaving Zizzi’s restaurant, remains in a critical but stable condition.
Dr Christine Blanshard, medical director for Salisbury District Hospital, said: “I’m pleased to be able to report an improvement in the condition of Yulia Skripal.
“She has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day.”
It came as police began to search a children’s play area just yards from the Skripal’s Salisbury home, suggesting they fear it may contain traces of nerve agent – either from the Skripals themselves or by the would-be assassins – who may have left a trail as they made their escape.
NHS officials are also understood to be monitoring several people for signs of health problems after coming into potential contact with the Novichok agent. They are thought to include neighbours, postal staff, the first uniformed officers to arrive at the scene.
Meanwhile, Yulia and Sergei’s relatives in Russia had expressed fears that she was close to death and may even have already died.
Her improvement will be welcomed both by her family and detectives, who will hope that she recovers to the extent that she can respond in some way to questions about the hours leading up to the attack.
Yulia, who lives in Moscow, was in Britain visiting her father and it may be that the 33-year-old can at some stage give an indication of whether they were followed or if she noticed any suspicious activity around her father’s house in Christie Miller Road, where police say the largest concentration of traces of nerve agent was discovered.
David Videcette, a former counter terrorism officer, said: “Officers will be hoping Yulia might be able to say something that indicates they were followed or that there was activity at the front of the house.”
It emerged this week that Col Skripal’s mother, Elena Yakovlevna, has not been told of the nerve agent attack on her son and granddaughter.
For more than three weeks since the pair collapsed into a coma following the attack, the 90-year-old’s family have managed to keep her away from one of the most widely reported stories in the world, fearful that news of her son’s fate would prove fatal to her health.
Victoria Skripal, a niece of Colonel Skripal, said at the time: “Our priority is to protect our grandmother so that she does not hear anything. She will not know until the very last moment. “She will know when this situation is somehow resolved, that is, if there is a logical end. If the story ends badly, we will tell her that they fell ill.”
Britain has accused Russia of being behind the poisoning, something fiercely denied by the Kremlin.
In turn, Russia has suggested that UK intelligence officers may have been involved in the poisoning.
Moscow is facing increasing global isolation, with at least 26 countries expelling a total of more than 130 of its suspected spies.