THE poisoning of a couple with the same nerve agent used in an incident earlier this year is “very troubling”, the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, said on Thursday.
Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley are in a critical condition after falling ill at their home in Amesbury, near Salisbury, on Saturday. They are being treated at Salisbury District Hospital.
The Baptist church in Amesbury, visited by Mr Rowley at the weekend, has been cordoned off.
On Wednesday the UK’s top counter-terrorism officer, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, said that experts at Porton Down laboratory had analysed samples taken from the couple and concluded that they were poisoned by Novichok, a nerve agent developed in Russia.
In March, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with Novichok (News, 12 March) in Salisbury.
Bishop Holtam said: “The poisoning of Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess is very troubling. They are being prayed for in the cathedral and the local churches.
“Thank God for the emergency services and the experienced care of the Salisbury District Hospital. As with the earlier incident with the Skripals, it is going to take time to discover what exactly has happened.”
He continued: “The risks are said by Public Health England to be very low, which is clearly true, given that no one else is sick.
“Salisbury continues to get on with life with that same care, resourcefulness, and strength of character that has been so apparent these last months. It is a beautiful summer and a great time to visit this wonderful cathedral city.”
A major incident was declared by Wiltshire police on Wednesday once it became clear that Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley had been poisoned by a nerve agent rather than a drug overdose, as was first assumed. Mr Rowley is a registered heroin user.
The Metropolitan Police said that there was “nothing in their background” to assume the couple had been targeted.
The Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, told MPs on Thursday: “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.
“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.”
The acting Dean of Salisbury, Canon Edward Probert, said on Thursday that the latest incident was “undeniably a blow”.
Canon Probert said: “Our prayers are with the two people affected, their loved ones, and those in the police, NHS and other emergency services who are working to establish what has happened.
“For our part, the Cathedral is continuing to welcome the people from around world who are visiting our city and will carry on working closely with other organisations and businesses to support the city. We’ve proved to be a resilient community and we’re sure that this will continue, despite the current uncertainties.”
Mr Rowley attended the annual fete at Amesbury Baptist Church on Saturday, which has now been cordoned off by police. Ms Sturgess is believed to have already been checked into hospital.
The Revd Barry Davis, minister of the church, told the BBC on Thursday: “It’s just unfathomable. The community is incredibly shocked and surprised and concerned.”
He was contacted early on Wednesday morning by the police with news of the incident.
The secretary of the church, Roy Collins, told the BBC that the community had suffered a “horrific attack”.
Mr Collins said: “The senses have been assaulted. We feel our community has been attacked in some way. People are suffering, and we suffer with them.”
He said that he had met Mr Rowley at the event on Saturday and had tried to engage with him, but “it seemed like he was drunk.
“We woke up to discover the church was cordoned off. Then we discovered there had been an incident of some kind. Now we understand the facts, which are horrific.”
Public Health England have issued advice for those who have visited five places located in Salisbury and Amesbury, between 20-29 June.