'It's going to ruin our year': Salisbury business owners express fears over future after second novichok poisoning

‘Who’s going to say once they clear this up, in a couple of months’ time, something else won’t happen?’

Tom Embury-Dennis
Monday 09 July 2018 12:21 BST
Amesbury couple were exposed to nerve agent novichok

Known as “Smallsbury” no longer, the Wiltshire city of Salisbury is once again at the centre of international intrigue after a local British couple were poisoned by the same deadly nerve agent that left a former Russian spy and his daughter on the verge of death.

But as news that local police had declared another major incident swept through the attractive cathedral city, business owners and shop workers expressed fears they would see a further drop in tourism, and an even bigger chunk of their profits disappear.

“Business was affected big time,” Tracy, a sales assistant at a wooden sculptures gift shop, told The Independent. “I fear it might happen a bit more this time because we just started on the road to recovery and everybody’s saying, ‘Ok, things are fine,’ and now this has happened and who’s going to say once they clear this up, in a couple of months’ time, something else won’t happen?”

“My fear is this is going to have another knock-on effect.”

In and around Salisbury’s pedestrianised high street, liberally sprinkled with coffee houses and pretty little gift shops, “For Sale” signs can be seen above boarded-up shop fronts.

Wiltshire Council told The Independent eight businesses had temporarily closed due to the novichok attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal – though one business owner said the number was likely far higher – while at least 17 shops saw a decline of up to 80 per cent in footfall in the months following the incident in March.

Alex Stevens, 29, manager of Whittard tea shop on Salisbury’s high street, said trade had been down more than 20 per cent since March, before picking up in the last two weeks as tourists finally started coming back.

'Major incident' declared after couple 'exposed to unknown substance'in Wiltshire town of Amesbury

The latest poisoning, she said, is “going to ruin the rest of our year. This is the most important part, summer, where usually tourists would be coming to the cathedral, coming to Stonehenge, where now the worry is they’re not going to come to Salisbury, they’re going to go to Winchester.

“You can see the state of the town already, how many stores there are. If you look around, the amount of stores that have closed in recent months…”

A stone’s throw from the high street, in a small park where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found passed out next to The Maltings shopping centre, a local trader said business has finally picked up.

His fruit and vegetable stand, just a few feet from the now removed bench where the Skripals collapsed, was forced to shut down in the weeks following the nerve agent attack.

“Since the Skripal case business went downhill. We couldn’t trade here and we didn’t have any footfall,” Daniel Styles said. “Since we’ve reopened things have got better and picked up.”

He said he was “a little bit concerned” by the latest incident, but insisted his spot next to the park was “more safe than anywhere because we know it’s been decontaminated”.

Does he worry for his safety? “I’m more concerned about making no money and not being able to pay the bills,” he admitted. “It might sound crazy.”

But not every business owner was pessimistic about Salisbury’s chances of attracting visitors, with one independent jewellery store blaming the media for the decline in trade.

Jane Ashton, co-owner of OSOboutique, told The Independent: “The press have exaggerated the effects on the people of Salisbury, because the people of Salisbury have just got on with it.”

She said trade had “definitely” been affected, but attributed it to “the way the press covered” the initial attack on the Skripals.

“If this little incident had happened in London, it would have gone away ages ago,” she added.

But in one case, the stream of bad news appeared to have the opposite effect for two tourists from South Africa.

Standing outside and taking photos of Zizzi’s, the Italian restaurant still closed over fears of contamination, the pair said they had come to Salisbury because of the poisoning.

“We wanted to take photos of the area where Skripal was found on the bench,” one said, before the other, laughing, added: “I’m only here because of that, to be fair, in a morbid sort of way.”

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