Residents fear for their safety in British city at centre of Novichok nerve agent poisonings

Public Health England's Deputy Director in the South West, Debbie Stark, says the risk to the public is low after a couple were poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok, the same substance used to poison a former Russian spy and his daughter last March.
A video still shows a man being put into an ambulance by medics and police outside a residential address in Amesbury, southern England.
A video still shows a man being put into an ambulance by medics and police outside a residential address in Amesbury, southern England.PHOTO: AFP

SALISBURY, United Kingdom (AFP) - Catapulted into a major diplomatic crisis after the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, a second incident of Novichok exposure in the British city of Salisbury has left residents fearing for their safety.

"I personally am anxious... Where is it going to happen next?" said Sally, a 57-year-old musician living near a homeless hostel in the southwestern city where one of the latest victims was living.

A man and a woman were taken critically ill on Saturday in the small town of Amesbury near Salisbury after being exposed to the Soviet-made Novichok nerve agent.

The incident came nearly four months after the Skripals were taken ill on March 4.

Officials have said the risk to the public remains "low" but have urged anyone who visited areas the couple visited to wash their clothes and wipe down personal items and have set up helplines for worried residents.

Anne Zhang, a 37-year-old mother-of-two, said she was concerned about her children being contaminated despite reassurances from the authorities.

Zhang said her youngest child, a daughter, had visited one of the sites now cordoned off - a public park called Queen Elizabeth Gardens - with her school on Wednesday (July 4).

"They were there the whole day so I really worry they touched something, they maybe get in contact with something," she said.

Zhang said she was no longer allowing her children to go anywhere else in the city except their home and school.

Many residents also worried about another blow to the image of their city, where the local economy was just beginning to recover after the first poisoning.

"Salisbury will now be remembered for the next 50 years as the place where some people were struck down with Novichok and not because it has a beautiful cathedral or it is a beautiful city," said Tom Eastman, 43, who works in the city centre.

Many shopkeepers said they were worried about another drop in the number of visitors to the quintessentially English town, which boasts a cathedral dating back to the 13th century.

"There is a general concern that if we have the same happening again as we did back in March, then it could be that some independent businesses just don't have the cash to keep themselves afloat," said Lily Shaw, an employee at the Cotswold sportswear shop on the main square.

Shaw said there was a 30 per cent drop in customers immediately following the Skripal poisoning.

"The town just turned into a ghost town and it took a long time for people to come back," she said.

'FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN'

Katie Bacon, owner of the Framemakers store, said: "There is a fear of the unknown because there aren't any answers.

"Nobody is clear about what has happened and the implications it has. It would be nice if the authorities would give a little bit more information," she said.

Despite the incident, numerous tourists could be seen at the cathedral, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and holds an original copy of the 13th-century Magna Carta.

"Of course we didn't know all this would happen again but I am not really worried," said Andy Lyall, a 54-year-old tourist from Aberdeen in Scotland.

"It is bizarre to see some places cordoned off and the police standing around but the atmosphere seems fine to us. There's plenty to do here, it is a nice place, it is worth the trip."

Lyall said he would "definitely" recommend the city to others but added: "As long as it doesn't happen again. No more episodes of random poisoning would be good."