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Amesbury poisoning - LIVE: 'Contaminated item' blamed for critical condition of Wiltshire couple still not found

Counterror police investigate after pair poisoned with same chemical weapon used in attempted assassination of Russian ex-spy

Chris Baynes
Thursday 05 July 2018 15:44
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Amesbury couple were exposed to nerve agent novichok

Police are still hunting for an item contaminated with a Soviet-era nerve agent blamed for the collapse of a couple in Amesbury after the UK government accused Russia of using ”barbaric and inhumane” chemical weapons on Britain’s streets.

Home secretary Savid Javid chaired an emergency Cobra meeting after Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley fell critically ill in Amesbury four months after exposure to the same novichok toxin used in an assassination attempt on Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

The couple are fighting for life in hospital after falling ill on Saturday.

Mr Javid told MPs that results from the government’s Porton Down laboratory confirmed the pair had been poisoned with ”the exact same nerve agent” used in March’s assassination attempt, which the British government alleges was planned by the Kremlin.

Mr Rowley, 45, and Ms Sturgess, 44, are not thought to have been deliberately targeted and have no known links to the Skripals or espionage.

One theory understood to be under investigation is that the pair may have inadvertently found a container used to transport the nerve agent for the initial attack and which may have been discarded in a public place.

Their poisoning has raised serious questions about the multi-million-pound clean-up following the attack in Salisbury, about eight miles from Amesbury.

Police said there is no evidence that either of the latest victims had recently visited any of the sites that were part of the original clean-up.

Securities minister Ben Wallace said the public are at “low risk” but “not zero risk”.

The Russian government has denied involvement in the attack on the Skripals and any role in or knowledge of the incident in Amesbury.

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Good morning and welcome to our live coverage as counterror police investigate how a couple in Wiltshire were poisoned by the same nerve agent as former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia earlier this year.

The couple, named locally as mother Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, fell critically Amesbury, around eight miles from where the Skripals were poisoned with the novichok toxn in March.

Home secretary Sajid Javid will chair a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee on the investigation this morning.

Chris Baynes5 July 2018 08:22
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The government does not believe there has been a fresh nerve agent attack in Wiltshire, security minister Ben Wallance has said.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today, he said the "working assumption" was that Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley were victims of the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal in March and were "not directly targeted".

He added the couple had no known links to the Skripals or espionage.

Chris Baynes5 July 2018 08:31
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The public is at "low risk" but "not zero risk", according to the security minister.

"We can't give 100 per cent guarantees, and we try to minimalise the risk, and I know the people of Salisbury will be anxious," he told Today.

He added: "We are giving a low risk, but take some precautions."

Public Health England has said that "based on the number of casualties affected, it is not believed that there is a significant health risk to the wider public".

However, the uncertainty about how Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley came into contact with the nerve agent will inevitably be causing concern among locals, particularly after authorities had said the was no further danger to the public following the Salisbury attack.

Police have cordoned off several sites visited by the pair, including a park and supported accommodation for homeless people in Salisbury, Charlie Rowley’s home in Amesbury, and a chemist and Baptist church he visited before falling ill.

Chris Baynes5 July 2018 08:39
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The Independent's Tom Embury-Dennis is in Amesbury and has filed this report on the mood in the town: 

Chris Baynes5 July 2018 08:43
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The UK's security minister has called on Russia to explain how a British couple were poisoned with a Soviet-style nerve agent in Amesbury.

Ben Wallace said the Kremlin "are the ones who could fill in all the clues to keep people safe".

Moscow has always denied involvement in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury earlier this year, but the British government said there was "no alternative explanation".

Speaking on Today this morning, Mr Wallace said: "The Russian state could put this wrong right. They could tell us what happened. What they did. And fill in some of the significant gaps that we are trying to pursue.

"We have said they can come and tell us what happened. I'm waiting for the phone call from the Russian state. The offer is there. They are the ones who could fill in all the clues to keep people safe.''

He described the assassination attempt on Mr Skripal, former MI6 informant, as "a brazen and reckless attack in the heart of a very peaceful part of the United Kingdom".

"That is part of the anger I feel about the Russian state is that they chose to use clearly a very, very toxic, highly dangerous weapon," he added.

The attempted murder of the Skripals sparked a major diplomatic incident, with hundreds of Russian diplomats expelled by British allies across the world. The poisoning of two British citizens could now inflame that situation, at a time when Russia is hosting the football World Cup.

Chris Baynes5 July 2018 09:07
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The Amesbury poisoning raises "serious questions" about the clean-up in Salisbury following the attack on the Skripals in March, a government source has told the Press Association.

Public Health England earlier moved to reassure locals over concerns the decontamination operation may not have worked.

Medical director Paul Cosford told the Today programme that "the sites that were the subject of the clean-up after Skripal are not associated with this incident"

"So there should not be any concern that the clean-up after the previous incident has not worked here," he added.

However, a senior government source said the fact two  "serious questions of the oversight and choosing of the [clean-up] sites and how this was handled".

Police in hazmat suits inspect a bench were Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found collapsed in March 

The clean-up reportedly was carried out by Defra and overseen by environment secretary Michael Gove under the guidance of the Home Office, and is thought to have cost millions of pounds.

The government source said authorities had not been able to ascertain the item used to deposit the novichok in the attack on the Skripals and it is possible the latest victims came into contact with that item.

This could raise the prospect that at least one other area in Salisbury city centre was contaminated with the nerve agent but had not previously been identified.

"Novichok doesn't evaporate. It exists forever," the source said. "Incineration is the most effective method. But they are not going to burn Salisbury down."

Chris Baynes5 July 2018 09:28
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'Public should avoid picking up discarded objects'

The public in Salisbury should avoid picking up discarded objects as a precaution against novichok poisoning, Public Health England's medical director has warned.

Speaking to Sky News, Professor Paul Cosford said rain would likely have washed the nerve agent from the exterior of any objects but there could still be a risk from some items.

The advice is an apparent change in stance from the public health body, which earlier said there was not believed to be any significant risk to locals.

Authorities have also urged people to wash their clothes if they have visited any of the sites currently cordoned off by police.

Chris Baynes5 July 2018 09:49
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Sajid Javid is to brief MPs in the House of Commons following a Cobra meeting this morning.

The home secretary called a meeting of the government emergencies committee after police confirmed Wiltshire couple Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley had been poisoned by the same nerve agent as ex-spy Sergei Skripal.

Mr Javid will chair the meeting at 11am before delivering an oral statement in Parliament at 1.15pm.

Chris Baynes5 July 2018 10:20
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John Glen, the MP for Salisbury, said he is "extremely concerned" about the latest poisoning, which he had happened just as his constituency was returning to normal after the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal. 

"This news is extremely unwelcome and my first thoughts are with the two individuals who are critically ill in hospital," he added.

"My strong instinct is that they have somehow encountered some discarded paraphernalia from the Skripal incident and certainly there is no reason to believe they would have been targeted in any separate way, but nonetheless the uncertainty of how that happened is concerning and that's why the five sites on a precautionary basis have been cordoned off."

The Conservative MP said it was worrying that the novichok nerve agent may have been lying dormant for three months in Salisbury.

"The real issue is that we can't know where it was or what it was because it was so recklessly and outrageously administered in the first place. This is a prohibited weapon of war that is banned in all countries," he added.

Chris Baynes5 July 2018 10:35
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 The substance which has left Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley fighting for life was identified as a novichok nerve agent by experts at the Porton Down military laboratory. Andrew Griffin has taken a look at the secretive government facility, which was thrust into the spotlight following attack on Sergei Skripal earlier this year: 

Chris Baynes5 July 2018 10:44

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