Russian spy incident: The small city of Salisbury becomes an international focus point after nerve agent incident

‘Theresa May walked straight past us. I don’t think she cares about the independent shops. She could have done more to make us at ease,’ says shop assistant

Maya Oppenheim
Thursday 15 March 2018 22:04
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Salisbury attack: Timeline of events

Residents might have long christened Salisbury as “smallsbury” – you are unable to venture far without seeing someone you know – but this has radically changed in the space of just 10 days.

Hordes of police officers, military personnel, investigators in hazmat suits, journalists and cameramen have descended on the ordinarily quiet cathedral city since a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with “military grade” Novichok nerve agent.

To the great surprise of locals, the unassuming humdrum Wiltshire city has inadvertently become the epicentre of escalating geopolitical tensions. Theresa May even visited Salisbury on Thursday to speak to emergency services personnel, members of the public and local business owners.

Pat Burr, 75, says she is happy the Prime Minister visited the city.

“And so she should,” the former catering manager says. “To be honest, I am not surprised she did not come sooner. I don’t suppose they wanted too many people down here when they didn’t know whether the nerve agent was safe.”

Ms Burr, who lives in Milborne Port, which is around 35 miles away, says her trip to Salisbury with the Women’s Institute (WI) was almost postponed due to the nerve agent attack.

“The WI thought they might have to cancel their trip to the theatre here today, but they didn’t in the end,” she says. “You have got to live your life. You can’t let any terrorists stop you otherwise they have won. Presumably it is the Russians, but you just don’t know in this day and age – it could be anyone.”

But others were less pleased with Ms May’s efforts. Joyce Smale, 65, says that while it was positive the PM visited Salisbury, she wishes she had come sooner.

“Yes it is a good thing, but it was a bit of a surprise she had not come already,” the support worker says. “The attack was terrible. It is frightening that they used a stronger chemical than the VX nerve agent and sarin.”

Joyce Smale says it is ‘frightening that they used a stronger chemical than the VX nerve agent and sarin’

Poppy White, a 23-year-old shop assistant at Ganesha jewellery and craft shop, which is just yards from the park-side cordon, is more dismissive of Ms May’s efforts.

“Theresa May walked straight past us,” says Ms White. “I don’t think she cares about the independent shops. She could have done more to make us at ease, I mean she could have done at least something. She could have said – I’m sorry this is happening, or I’m going to help employees pay rent.”

Ms White says she is disturbed by the number of people taking selfies by the cordoned-off bench where Mr Skripal and his daughter – who remain in critical condition – were found passed out.

“The whole event has sparked a morbid curiosity,” she says. “There have been a lot of American tourists and young people from the area taking selfies in front of the police cordons. I can understand a fascination with death, but why would you take selfies at a crime scene. I am social media crazy but I would not do that.”

She says that while Mr Skripal looked familiar to her, she knew nothing about him, adding: “I recognise him, but then again I recognise most people because I worked in the Wetherspoons for two years. Everyone knows everyone here.

“But in his situation, you don’t want to make a big spectacle of yourself. You want to stay out of public view. I’m not surprised he supposedly led a quiet life.”

Ms White sighs deeply as she says trade had dropped by between 75 and 95 per cent, and the shop only had one customer until around 2pm.

“I just hope it goes back to normal in Salisbury soon. I feel overworked and underworked at the same. I want my life back,” she says.

Rahul Sharma, the owner of the shop, is equally scathing about Theresa May, and expressed anger he did not get a chance to speak to her directly. “I came down from my other shop in Bath because the management said I needed to as she was meeting all the business owners,” the 34-year-old says.

“I was standing outside the shop with Poppy thinking we were going to meet her and discuss her plans. I wanted to ask for rent reductions. I said ‘Hello Theresa May’ and tried to speak, but I don’t think she listened to me. I don’t think she cares.”

Rahul Sharma says he wanted to ask Ms May about ‘rent reductions’ because shops have suffered in Salisbury 

Elsewhere in Salisbury, hundreds of people gathered in the market square impatiently hoping to catch a glimpse of Ms May. People avidly stood on their tiptoes as the PM was hurriedly ushered inside the Guildhall away from barricades of cameras.

Nevertheless, there was a general sense among many that the authorities’ warnings had come a little too late. Public Health England did not advise people to wash their clothes to avoid potential prolonged exposure to the nerve agent until a week after the attack.

Priscilla Bernard, 70, condemns the slow response of the authorities. “It has all been a little too late. There has been a lack of response,” she says. ”I don’t know if it is still there, but that bench was there a week later. Why didn’t they take it away straight away? Also, do people know what they were wearing a week ago?”

Responding to Ms May’s decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats in the wake of the spy poisoning, she says: “I think it is a jolly good idea. I think it should be stronger, but it is a move in the right direction. She should also stop the football team going out altogether, and she needs to introduce more sanctions because we have got to worry about gas coming over here.”

Berenice Marsh, the manager of a fancy dress shop just metres from police tape that surrounds the bench where Mr Skripal and his daughter were found, said Ms May’s expulsion of Russian diplomats could potentially backfire.

“You have got to do something, but at the same time I don’t really know what the answer is because expelling diplomats is just going to rile them,” she says. “They are just going to do the same to us and then it’s going to be backwards and forward, like children in a playground. It will cause really big friction. It is Russia we’re talking about.”

“Russia’s response has been terrible,” she continues. “Who do they think they are? It is really really scary because once Russia gets involved, who knows? I know they do not have the iron curtain or anything now, but I remember as a child all the gymnasts could not leave Russia. When I was growing up Russia was a scary place”.

As residents muse over the deepening political situation, police officers lead sniffer dogs across Salisbury and a helicopter is seen circling in the distance.

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