Labour has accused the Government of rushing to blame Vladimir Putin for the Salisbury nerve agent attack, after scientists at Porton Down said they had not verified that the substance came from Russia.
The development ratcheted up tensions between Moscow and London on the day of an extraordinary meeting of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, called by Russia to discuss the case.
Mr Aitkenhead said on Tuesday that the lab had identified the substance used to attack former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia as a military-grade Novichok nerve agent which could probably be deployed only by a nation-state.
But he told Sky News it was not Porton Down’s role to work out where the agent came from and said the Government’s conclusion that it was highly likely to be Russian was based on “a number of other sources”.
His comments appeared to contradict the answer given by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson when he was asked recently on German TV why the UK believed the source of the nerve agent was Russia.
“The people from Porton Down, the laboratory, they were absolutely categorical,” Mr Johnson said. “I asked them that myself. I said: ‘Are you sure?’ He said: ‘There’s no doubt’.”
And on March 22, the Foreign Office issued a tweet saying: “Analysis by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down made clear that this was a military-grade Novichok nerve agent produced in Russia.”
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said the development raised questions about the Government’s approach, and said Jeremy Corbyn should now be given credit for demanding more evidence before allocating blame.
“It doesn’t surprise me Porton Down is saying this because the security services were always very cautious in what they said,” Ms Abbott told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Ms Abbott acknowledged that Prime Minister Theresa May had been “quite careful” in her language, but added: “Boris Johnson apparently going on international media and saying he was 101% certain it was Putin – I don’t understand where he got that information from.”
Mr Putin called for a thorough investigation into the poisoning during a visit to Turkey, saying that “the speed at which the anti-Russian campaign has been launched causes bewilderment”.
Following Mr Aitkenhead’s comments, a Government spokesman said ministers had always been clear that the identification of the substance as Novichok by the Porton Down experts was “only one part of the intelligence picture” leading to the assessment that Russian state involvement was the only plausible explanation for the attack.
But Russia’s EU ambassador Vladimir Chizhov insisted that the nerve agent “could have been manufactured anywhere”.
Russian news agency Tass quoted Mr Chizhov as saying he was “not surprised” by Mr Aitkenhead’s comments, as Novichok “is widely known – its formula is even available on the internet”.
“It means that it could have been manufactured anywhere, provided its manufacturers had a fairly equipped laboratory and the skills of chemistry students,” said Mr Chizhov. “So it is only natural that its origin cannot be identified.”
Russia is expected to restate its denial of responsibility at Wednesday’s meeting of the OPCW’s executive council behind closed doors in The Hague.
The Foreign Office dismissed the meeting as a “diversionary tactic” by Moscow.
“Russia has called this meeting to undermine the work of the OPCW which, fully in accordance with the chemical weapons convention, is providing the UK with technical assistance and evaluation through independent analysis of samples from the Salisbury attack.
“Of course, there is no requirement in the chemical weapons convention for the victim of a chemical weapons attack to engage in a joint investigation with the likely perpetrator.
“This Russian initiative is yet again another diversionary tactic, intended to undermine the work of the OPCW in reaching a conclusion.”