A couple poisoned by the nerve agent novichok may have been exposed to residue from the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, according to defence and security sources.
Police confirmed the pair had been left critically ill in hospital by the toxin used in the attempted assassination of the former MI6 spy and his daughter. Initial investigations found the couple – who live in Amesbury, nine miles from the site of the Salisbury attack – had no link to the Skripals.
However on Friday – the day before they collapsed – Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley had been near roads sealed off during the investigation in March, sparking concern over decontamination of the area.
Initial investigations have found nothing to indicate Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley, who collapsed hours apart, had any link with the Russian father and daughter or are likely to have been targeted in an assassination attempt.
There will be deep concern about public safety now the novichok connection has been proven after authorities declared the area safe following the March attack, reopening businesses in Salisbury ahead of a royal visit.
Police initially believed Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley had ingested contaminated heroin or crack cocaine, which have been reported in the Wiltshire area. However, the symptoms shown by the couple and their rapid deterioration made them realise that other factors were at work.
The couple were, it is believed, in Salisbury on Friday near roads which had been sealed off during the Skripal inquiry. However, at least one other person who was with them at the time is yet to show any symptoms.
Tracing Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley’s movements may help the continuing police investigation into the Skripal case, sources said. They are both being treated in isolation and under police guard at Salisbury district hospital, which previously treated Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia for exposure to novichok.
The assistant commissioner of specialist operations Neil Basu at Scotland Yard said: “Following the detailed analysis of these samples, we can confirm that the man and woman have been exposed to the nerve agent Novichok, which has been identified as the same nerve agent that contaminated both Yulia and Sergei Skripal.”
Mr Basu said that around 100 detectives from the Counter Terrorism Policing Network are now working on this investigation, alongside colleagues from Wiltshire Police. He confirmed that Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley remained in a critical condition in hospital.
Downing Street confirmed that home secretary Sajid Javid will chair a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee today.
Mr Javid said: “The police must be given the space they need to continue establishing the full facts. My thoughts at this time are with the two individuals affected. The government’s first priority is for the safety of the residents in the local area but as Public Health England has made clear, the risk to the general public is low.”
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “This is an incident which understandably is being treated with the utmost seriousness. Ministers and the prime minister are being kept updated and there was a meeting this morning of officials to receive updates on the facts of the situation.”
Police have cordoned off several sites visited by the pair, including a park and supported accommodation for homeless people in Salisbury, Mr Rowley’s home in Amesbury, and a chemist and Baptist church he visited before falling ill.
Queen Elizabeth Gardens sits just metres away from where the Skripals were found unconscious on a bench in The Maltings shopping district of Salisbury, while John Baker House is just a four-minute walk from a Zizzi’s restaurant where the victims ate.
Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, said the March incident meant officials had a “well-established response” in place. She said: “I understand that those in Salisbury and in surrounding areas will be concerned at this news, particularly those who recently visited areas now cordoned off by police.”
The risk to the public remained low, she said, but issued “highly precautionary” advice to those with concerns.
“As before, my advice is to wash your clothes and wipe down any personal items, shoes and bags, with cleansing or baby wipes before disposing of them in the usual way,” she said. “You do not need to seek advice from a health professional unless you are experiencing symptoms, as any individual who had been significantly exposed at the same time would by now have symptoms.”
When decontamination work started in April, a Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) official revealed that novichok had been spread on Mr Skripal’s front door in liquid form and spread around Salisbury by infected people. He said the nerve agent could “move between sites by direct transfer by a contaminated person or item” and warned that it “doesn’t just disappear”.
Defra’s chief scientific adviser, Ian Boyd, confirmed that the substance could still be toxic in some locations but in May officials reopened The Maltings shopping area and declared it safe.
Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley spent Friday evening in Salisbury with friend Sam Hobson, who saw them both fall ill the following day. The 29-year-old said he witnessed Ms Sturgess being carried into an ambulance on a stretcher at around 11am after she fell unconscious. “She was having assistance with her breathing,” he said. “Paramedics said they needed to do a heart and brain scan and so Charlie and I were told we couldn’t see her. Charlie was fine at first.”
Mr Hobson said the “great couple” aged in their 40s, have one daughter each from previous relationships and have been together for several months. He recalled taking Mr Rowley to collect a prescription from Boots in Amesbury and on to eat lunch at Amesbury Baptist church fair, before returning to his friend’s home in Muggleton Road. Both the church and chemist have now been cordoned off.
Mr Hobson said Mr Rowley started falling ill around four hours after Ms Sturgess was taken to hospital, while they were preparing clothes to take to her. “He felt ill and went for a shower. Then his eyes went bloodshot and like two pin pricks, he began garbling incoherently… he was making weird noises and acting like a zombie. It was a zombie-like state. He slumped against the wall.”
Mr Hobson described frantically calling an ambulance for his friend, adding: “This doesn’t make any sense, I can’t see why they’d be targeted… they are a great couple and always there for me.” He has not been tested for possible exposure but said authorities are making regular checks on his health.
Residents near Mr Rowley’s home described seeing police cars, fire engines and people in “green suits” arrive on Saturday night. Chloe Edwards said families were told to stay in their homes for several hours and had connected a hosepipe to the water mains – a procedure that is commonly used for decontamination.
Chief Constable Paul Mills, of Wiltshire Police, urged members of the public with concerns to call a dedicated helpline. “Our priority at this time remains to understand the circumstances surrounding how these two individuals became unwell,” he added. “I would like to appeal to anyone who might have information concerning the circumstances surrounding this incident to come forward.”
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