Russia spy attack: Salisbury 'a ghost town' as residents abandon centre over nerve agent fears

'There are lots of mums who are really worried and stressed out and are not going into Salisbury at all. I think they are panicking because not a lot is known'

Maya Oppenheim
Salisbury
Thursday 15 March 2018 00:51 GMT
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Salisbury city centre visibly quieter days after Russian spy attack

Traders describe it as a "ghost town" and mothers refuse to take their children into the centre as fear continues to pervade Salisbury more than a week-and-a-half after a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned.

While Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain in critical condition, residents are staying away from the once teeming Wiltshire city to avoid the perceived threat of the "military grade" Novichok nerve agent.

Police said a total of 38 people had been treated for some degree of exposure to it and some residents are unwilling to risk their lives or those of their children.

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Vicky Bleaney, who runs a mother and baby group in Salisbury, told The Independent many mothers were too anxious about the attack to venture into town at all.

“There are lots of mums who are really worried and stressed out and are not going into Salisbury at all," she said.

Mother to a two and a three-year-old herself, she added: "I think they are panicking because not a lot is known."

The anger stemmed from a lack of communication from local authorities, she said.

“Lots of mothers are upset and angry. They want more information. Nothing has been said about what to do with babies,” she added. “I feel really sorry for the local businesses here. My husband runs a small business and I know how hard it can be but equally I wouldn’t want to put my own children at risk. Children are obviously more vulnerable than adults to such chemicals.”

(Maya Oppenheim (Maya Oppenheim)

However, she insisted that some mothers remained unperturbed by the unusual events of 4 March and they were going into town regardless.

Mothers were firmly divided into “two camps”, she said, adding that she had not been into town since it happened but that was more to do with laziness than fear.

As police work round the clock to investigate the attempted murder in the city, some stores in the Maltings shopping centre remain closed, giving some streets an eerie feel.

Traders told The Independent sales had plummeted in the wake of the attack.

Party Seasons, a fancy dress shop just metres from police tape that surrounds the bench where Mr Skripal and his daughter were found passed out, said sales were down by 75 per cent.

“We only made £5.95 until 1.30pm yesterday,” Berenice Marsh, the shop's manager said. “The customer bought some latex balloons and a balloon pump.

“The walkway is closed so we are losing customers walking past. I’m not sure the stall out there is doing well on fruit and veg but who wants to buy fruit and veg when there’s been a nerve agent around. I think a lot of people are avoiding town. If I didn’t work here I wouldn’t come in.”

In fact, Ms Marsh said she was so frightened earlier this week that she was forced to shut up an hour early.

“It was very scary actually,” she said. “It had got dark and it was raining and you had all the helicopters flying low. It was at the time they decided to close the car park off at Sainsbury’s.”

“I was waiting any minute for the army to come across the square when I thought I’m out of here. It felt like the start of world war three.”

She said she had encountered a number of customers who were too frightened to go into the supermarket.

Mr Skripal's car had been found in there, she said, "so I suppose people think it might have contaminated stuff."

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She added: “Town has been shut down. It’s one place being cordoned off after another. People say Skripal used to go to Sainsbury’s a lot. I do recognise him but I don't know where from. I don’t know if he came in here. I don’t think he threw many parties."

Victoria Marsh, her 32-year-old daughter who also works at the shop, said locals were infuriated by the dearth of information being provided by authorities.

“There is a real sense of frustration here about the lack of information being given,” she said. “There is no proper hotline and people don’t even know the symptoms they should be looking for.”

The pair said the attack was all anyone was taking about and rumours and conspiracy theories were abounding.

But while some voiced fear at the nerve agent attack, others nonchalantly got on with their day-to-day routines, apparently oblivious to the lines of police tape and figures in hazmat suits. Shoppers marched by as policemen in fluorescent coats hopped from toe to toe to keep warm.

Connor Sawyer, a 21-year-old who works at a One Stop shop a couple of miles from the city centre, remained unflustered as he browsed the predominantly empty shops. However, he said others were less calm

“The city is a ghost town. It feels very eerie,” he said. “One customer has been refusing to come into town because she is so scared. She did what she called her ‘market shop’, in other words, her big shop, at One Stop.”

Connor Sawyer (Maya Oppenheim)

He laughed at Public Health England’s advice exactly a week after the attack, that people should wash their clothes to avoid potential prolonged exposure to the nerve agent.

“The advice to wash your clothes came a little late," he said. "Ideally, you would have thought people would have washed their clothes by then."

Elsewhere in the town, talk of the spy attack dominated, with passersby openly pondering how such an incident could have presented itself in so-called sleepy Salisbury.

“I heard people talking about it in the bookies, bakeries, and in Tesco,” added Edward Felps, an 87-year-old who taught on the postgraduate course on education at Bristol University. “For people outside here, the event has suddenly brought Salisbury into sharp focus. I think people here are excited by it. A bit of glamour has rubbed off”.

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