UK police say couple in Wiltshire contaminated with same substance as Skripals
British authorities are saying that the couple that is currently in critical condition in Salisbury hospital was exposed to the same substance as Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March.
UK counter-terrorism chief Neil Basu said that the substance was 'Novichok,' the same one that the UK claims the Skripals were poisoned with. He said that police did not know how it was transmitted. The affected people are both British and in their mid-40s, and Basu said there was nothing in the pair's background to suggest they would be a target, yet their connection to the Skripal case is being investigated.
Earlier, Wiltshire Police declared a “major incident” in the town of Amesbury, around 12 kilometers from Salisbury, over a man and woman, both British in their 40s, being hospitalized after “suspected exposure to an unknown substance.”
The pair was discovered unconscious in a property in Muggleton Road on Saturday, but Wiltshire Police did not report the incident until Wednesday. The UK's chief medical officer said during the press conference on Wednesday that the risk to the general public from the Wiltshire case was low.
"This evening I’ve received test result from Porton Down [laboratory] that show that the two people have been exposed to the nerve agent ‘Novichok,'” Neil Basu said, adding that it has been identified as “the same nerve agent that contaminated Yulia and Sergey Skripal.”
The police's initial assumption that drugs could have caused the pair’s collapse was due to the male victim, Charlie Rowley, being a registered heroin addict, British media reported. It is not known if his girlfriend, Dawn Sturgess, had any connection to drugs.
Sam Hobson, a friend of the couple allegedly exposed to Novichok, described the symptoms Rowley had suffered before he was taken to hospital.
“He’s started feeling really hot and sweaty, so he went and had a shower and then was using his bedroom for a while,” Hobson told RT. The man’s condition was deteriorating rapidly as the day progressed. As Rowley came out of the house, his eyes were red and he started “rocking against the walls, sweating and dribbling,” at which point, Hobson said he called an ambulance.
Hobson said that the man started experiencing the symptoms a day after he returned from Salisbury.
Basu, who was recently appointed as Head of Counter Terrorism, Assistant Commissioner of Specialist Operations (ACSO), has said that some 100 detectives of the counter-terrorism force have been scrambled for a joint investigation with local police.
Police have yet to determine if there is any connection between the March poisoning and the incident in Amesbury, Basu said, noting that “the possibility that these two investigations might be linked is clearly a line of enquiry for us.”
It is not known if the substance that the British pair was exposed to “was from the same batch” that the Skripals were allegedly poisoned with, Basu stressed.
British Home Secretary Sajid Javid has announced he will preside over a meeting of the government's emergency committee on Thursday. He praised the "tireless professionalism" of Salisbury Hospital staff and said the new incident "follows the reckless and barbaric attack which took place in Salisbury." Javid asked that the police be "given space" to establish the circumstances of the new incident.
The Novichok questions
While Basu noted that the investigation into the Skripals saga is still ongoing four months after their mysterious poisoning on March 4, the British government had determined a culprit right off the bat, blaming Russia mere days after the former double agent and his daughter were discovered slumped on a bench in Salisbury.
Russia’s refusal to give in to the British ultimatum and admit its responsibility without seeing some kind of proof first has led to a major diplomatic crisis, with the UK and its allies expelling over a hundred Russian diplomats. Moscow, which responded in a tit-for-tat manner, demands that London provide access to the materials of the investigation or at least present compelling evidence of Russia’s role in the case. However, the British side has repeatedly refused to cooperate with Moscow, demanding it first admit its guilt.
In the meantime, the list of unanswered questions is growing. It is still unclear how the Skripals managed to survive after being exposed to a supposed “military-grade” nerve agent. The UK’s refusal to give Russian diplomats access to Yulia Skripal, who is a Russian citizen, has also raised suspicions, with some Russian officials speculating that London fears the truth might come out if she were to speak freely.