The Guardian, UK: Britain will consult its allies about a possible response to Russia over the latest poisonings in Wiltshire as it emerged that the couple taken critically ill had handled an item contaminated with the nerve agent novichok.
The home secretary, Sajid Javid, accused Moscow of using the UK as a “dumping ground” for poison and urged Russia to explain “exactly what has gone on”.
In Salisbury, public health and council chiefs warned people not to pick up unidentified objects but dismissed the idea of making a general sweep of the city for novichok, although they said they could not rule out the possibility that more of the nerve agent was present.
The Guardian understands that the novichok that harmed them may have been in a sealed container left following the attack on the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in March.
Sources close to the investigation dropped a hint that they may now know the identity of the would-be killers who targeted the Skripals.
The Metropolitan police confirmed on Thursday evening that the couple taken ill, Dawn Sturgess, 44, from Salisbury, and Charlie Rowley, 45, of Amesbury, collapsed after picking up a contaminated item.
In a statement, the force said: “Following further tests of samples from the patients, we now know that they were exposed to the nerve agent after handling a contaminated item.”
The incident in Amesbury is being viewed by the authorities as an after-effect of the March attack rather than a major new development. This would suggest the police do not regard the agent as being from a fresh batch, although the Met said it could not confirm this. The statement said: “We are not in a position to say whether the nerve agent was from the same batch that the Skripals were exposed to.”
Updating MPs after he chaired a meeting of the government’s Cobra security meeting on Thursday morning, the home secretary confirmed Sturgess and Rowley appeared to have been exposed to novichok at a separate location to the Skripals.
“Our strong working assumption is that they came into contact with the nerve agent in a different location to the sites that were part of the initial clean-up operation,” Javid said.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the latest incident and the Russian embassy in London renewed its offer to take part in a joint investigation with the UK.
Javid told the Commons: “As we did before, we will be consulting with our international partners and allies following these latest developments. The eyes of the world are currently on Russia, not least because of the World Cup. It is now time that the Russian state comes forward and explains exactly what has gone on.
“Let me be clear: we do not have a quarrel with the Russian people. Rather, it is the actions of the Russian government.
“We will stand up to the actions that threaten our security and the security of our partners. It is unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns to be dumping grounds for poison.”
On Thursday, a hostel in Salisbury where Sturgess had a room was evacuated and a bin outside put under police guard. All 20 residents of John Baker House were told to pack a bag and leave the building. Other areas cordoned off include Rowley’s home in Muggleton Road in Amesbury where the pair fell ill.
Police warned that the people of Salisbury would soon see experts in hazmat suits back on the streets of Salisbury.
Sturgess and Rowley remain critically ill and doctors at Salisbury district hospital are trying to stabilise them. More than 100 people have phoned a helpline for people with concerns about the incident but nobody else had been taken ill.
At a press conference in Amesbury, the Wiltshire police chief constable, Kier Pritchard, said it was unbelievable that he was having to talk about another novichok nerve agent incident.
He said: “We, like our communities and the wider public, are shocked that a second major incident of a similar nature has unfolded in Wiltshire.”
Alistair Cunningham, the chair of the Salisbury Recovery Co-ordinating Group, denied there had been a failure in the clean-up following the attack on the Skripals and was confident that the areas where decontamination work had taken place were clean.
He emphasised that Sturgess and Rowley were believed to have fallen ill after visiting different areas to the Skripals. He said there would be no “blanket” search for novichok but the investigation would establish which new areas needed to be decontaminated. He said it was not possible to prove that there was no novichok left in Salisbury.
Cunningham said scientists had said novichok degraded in the natural environment over time, adding to the notion that the substance Sturgess and Rowley came into contact with was in a container.
Debbie Stark, the region’s deputy director for Public Health England, urged people not to pick up any unidentified objects. She said: “Based on current evidence, the risk to the general public as a result of this incident, remains low.
“I understand that people in Amesbury and Salisbury, and those who have recently visited the area, will be concerned about this incident. I would however like to reassure you, that it is safe to continue with your daily business and lives in the area.”
Investigators have ruled out the possibility that Sturgess and Rowley had any links to Russia or were targeted for assassination. However, they may now know the identity of the individuals who smeared the door knob at the Skripals’ home in Salisbury.
In May, it emerged that police and intelligence agencies had failed to identify those responsible, hampered in part by a lack of CCTV footage in Salisbury, but the police have now changed tack, neither confirming nor denying whether they know the perpetrators’ identities.