‘Where Is Safe?’: Salisbury Residents Respond To Deadly Novichok Nerve Agent Attack
The world may be watching intently as Theresa May and Vladimir Putin go head-to-head over the poisoning of a former double agent, but at the scene of the crime in Salisbury, locals are becoming increasingly concerned about possible health risks, as details of the nerve agent used are revealed.
The UK Prime Minister has given Russia had until 12pm on Tuesday to account for how an extremely rare Soviet-developed nerve agent called Novichok found its way into the system of Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, who were found slumped on a bench in the city centre nine days ago.
As the political standoff has escalated, Salisbury has watched as cordons go up across the city and police officers are positioned on permanent guard. The sites of contamination – the pub and the bench – are still cordoned off, while a Zizzi’s restaurant where the Skripals ate now stands behind fencing.
After it took Public Health England a week to issue advice to locals in the area on the day of the attack, telling them to wash their clothes, locals said they felt angry it had taken so long.
“I’m absolutely disgusted with the way they’ve handled it,” said Katie Townsend, a mother-of-four and assistant manager at a shoe shop around a two-minute walk from The Mill.
“It shouldn’t take a week for people to be given health and safety advice. If they knew there was a nerve agent… they should have given advice out a lot earlier.”
On Monday, May stood in the House of Commons said it was “highly likely” Russia was to blame for the “indiscriminate and reckless… attempted murder using a weapons grade nerve agent”.
Speaking on Tuesday, Peter Wilson, the UK Permanent Representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said he did not expect he would ever have to brief the council on “the first offensive use of a nerve agent of any sort on European territory since World War Two.”
“This attempted murder, using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British city, was not just a crime against the Skripals. It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the UK, which put the lives of innocent civilians at risk.”
But the immediate threat to the public has not been made clear to locals, residents said. Health officials sent an alarming message one week after the Skripals were found, telling around 500 people who were in the pub or Zizzi’s on March 4 or 5 that they should urgently wash their clothes and electronic devices.
Keira Guest, a 20-year-old chef, was in The Mill on March 4 with her mum and her mum’s boyfriend. She had heard the news come out gradually and was “slightly baffled” by the call to wash her clothes, a week on. She couldn’t remember what she was wearing that night in the pub.
“I don’t really know how to feel about it. I’m slightly concerned… that we didn’t find out closer to it happening,” she said.
Guest added that she had only learned of the advice from the news and social media. “At one point, it wasn’t a public health risk and then the next minute, it was. It was like: ‘Why now?’”
On Monday, England’s former chief medical officer criticised the official reaction to the incident. Sir Liam Donaldson said he was “a little surprised that the communication with the public has been in such general terms and slow to get off the ground. Especially in a situation when there are so many unknowns about the risk”.
He said people needed “reassurance” and should have their risk of exposure explained to them via an emergency health centre or a helpline. “It would have been nice, I think, to have a more hands-on approach and a more individualised approach to dealing with people’s concerns,” he said.
“I don’t want to take my dog out. I don’t want to take my children out. I don’t know where’s safe and where’s not,” Townsend added.
She added that she had friends who worked at Zizzi’s, and suggested customers and staff should receive counselling. “Families with young children go to The Mill for Sunday roast dinners. How’s the Government going to make up for the fact that children and young families may have been affected by this?
On Sunday, a police station car park – complete with a reassuring sign to motorists that Salisbury is “The Safe City!” – was cordoned off while the military moved in to remove possibly contaminated vehicles. Not long after, a cordon appeared suddenly at the local Sainsbury’s.
Beside a string of shops on The Maltings, a waterside walkway between the the pub and the bench cordon, two main entry points are now impassable. A small blackboard pleads with passersby to remember some shops remain open.
Kate Mills, who runs a cake shop, said she had customers tell her they were “scared” and would not go to certain parts of the city. “We need to get the city back to some form of normality as soon as possible,” she said.
Sarah Haydon, who runs a dress shop, added that the most common sight during the last eight days was of journalists asking questions. When HuffPost’s male reporter entered the shop, she said with weary recognition: “You’re not here to buy dresses, are you?”