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Amesbury Update

Volume 792: debated on Monday 9 July 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement updating the House on recent developments in Salisbury and Amesbury. As I told the House last week, a major incident was declared in Wiltshire on Tuesday after two people were found unwell at a home in Amesbury. Both were taken to Salisbury District Hospital, where they were treated for exposure to a nerve agent of the type known as Novichok. This has been identified as the same type of nerve agent that contaminated both Yulia and Sergei Skripal.

It is with profound sadness that I must inform the House that one of the patients, Dawn Sturgess, died last night at Salisbury District Hospital. I know that the whole House will want to join me in expressing our sincere condolences to her family and friends. The police are working to ensure that her family have all the support they need at this extremely difficult time. I know that the House will also want to join me in expressing our sincere thanks to the police and emergency services and to the staff at Salisbury District Hospital for their tireless professionalism and for the dedicated care they provided to Dawn Sturgess, and which they continue to provide to Dawn’s partner, 45 year-old Charlie Rowley, who remains critically ill in hospital. I met some of them at the weekend and I know just how hard they have worked and how committed they are to doing the best job possible.

Honourable Members may also be aware that a police officer working on the investigation was seen at Great Western Hospital and later transferred to Salisbury District Hospital as a precautionary measure. I can report to the House that the police officer was not poisoned, did not require treatment and has since left hospital.

Dawn’s death only strengthens our resolve to find out exactly what happened and who is behind it. I have just chaired a COBRA meeting to discuss the next steps, and the Prime Minister and I will continue to receive regular updates about the situation. This is now a murder investigation, which is being led by around 100 detectives from counterterrorism police command, alongside officers from Wiltshire Police and other constabularies.

We know that tests conducted at Porton Down have shown that both individuals were exposed to the same type of Novichok used to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March. Officers are still trying to work out how the pair were exposed to the nerve agent, although tests have confirmed that they touched a contaminated item with their hands. The investigation is now moving as quickly as possible to identify what the source of the contamination was. Police officers have cordoned off a number of sites in Amesbury and Salisbury that we believe the two individuals visited in the period before they fell ill. This is a precautionary measure while we continue to investigate how they came into contact with the substance.

As I told the House last week, there is no evidence that either person visited any of the sites that were decontaminated following the attempted murders of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March. We have taken a very robust approach to decontamination, and all sites reopened following the attempted murders in March are safe. Last week, the Chief Medical Officer for England said that the risk to the wider public remains low but that the public should not pick up any strange items, such as needles, syringes or unusual containers, given that the source of the contamination has not yet been found. This advice remains unchanged. However, in light of recent developments and to provide further reassurances for residents, I have asked the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies to reassure itself that the advice remains appropriate in the light of the news we heard overnight.

This has been a very upsetting time, not just for Dawn’s family but also for the people of Amesbury and Salisbury, who have seen places they know and love cordoned off and become a murder investigation scene. I would like to reassure them that we are doing everything we can to keep people safe. I have also agreed with my colleagues that the Cabinet Office will work across government departments to develop a suitable support package for local businesses.

The murder investigation is ongoing, and investigators are working urgently and around the clock. This work will take time, and the investigation must be allowed to proceed on the evidence and the facts alone. I will keep the House and the public updated on any significant developments. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier in the House of Commons. We associate ourselves with the condolences already expressed to the family and friends of Dawn Sturgess, who, tragically, has died after exposure to the nerve agent Novichok, and extend our good wishes for a full recovery to Charlie Rowley. We also take this opportunity to express again our thanks and gratitude to the security and intelligence services, the military, the police, emergency services and medical staff, who have worked continuously to protect and look after us and to help ensure that we have a country in which it is safe and enjoyable to live.

Four months ago it was the attempted murder of the Skripals. That was awful and outrageous enough. Now, it looks like not attempted murder but in all probability, in effect, the murder of Dawn Sturgess and the attempted murder of her partner Charlie Rowley, two innocent British nationals, on our own soil. The circumstantial evidence that the attempted murder of the Skripals was an act by the Russian state against Britain is strong—certainly strong enough to convince many of our allies to act with us against Russia.

Can the Minister say what the prospects are for naming, if not apprehending, the actual perpetrators of the earlier attempted murders four months ago, and now of the very recent murder and attempted murder, in effect, of two British nationals? The Government have stated that the risk to our citizens is low, but it is lethal when it happens, and presumably is not quite so low for people in Salisbury and its vicinity, compared with elsewhere in the country.

The Chief Medical Officer gave advice after the Salisbury incident that people should not pick up any unknown or already dangerous objects such as needles and syringes. In the light of what has now happened to Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, are the Government satisfied that that advice was repeated frequently and regularly enough, particularly to people in Salisbury and the surrounding areas? Messages only tend to get through if they are said and given time and again. Could the Minister say how often, by what means and to whom that message was repeated over the last four months?

The Home Secretary said last Thursday that it was,

“completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, parks or towns to be dumping grounds for poison”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/7/18; cols. 535-36.]

I am sure we would all agree with that. But what advice do the Government now intend to give to the people of Salisbury and the surrounding areas, particularly in view of what has just happened? If the Government are sure that no more of the poison Novichok has been dumped, to use the Home Secretary’s word, no doubt the Minister will tell us that when she responds. But if the Home Secretary is not sure, how will the Government update the advice given after the attempted murder of the Skripals to reflect the fact that the threat from the poison Novichok being dumped has materialised in such a tragic and horrific manner? Equally importantly, what steps will the Government take to maximise the chances of getting their message and advice across to as many of our fellow citizens as possible, not just now but in the days and weeks ahead?

I will make two final points. First, how long will it take to develop the suitable support package for local businesses that was mentioned in the Statement? Secondly, what exactly is the role and responsibility of the elected police and crime commissioner for the force area affected when an attempted murder and an actual murder take place of British nationals, quite probably as a result of actions by a hostile state, within the area of that PCC when the investigation is being led by detectives from Counter Terrorism Command?

My Lords, I also thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Our thoughts are with the friends and family of Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, who must be very concerned about him, as he is still critically ill. Clearly, we support the Government, the police, the security services and the military in their attempts to uncover what has happened here and in the earlier poisoning of the Skripals. We also commend the staff at Salisbury District Hospital for their unstinting efforts to treat the victims.

Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, the head of UK counterterrorism policing, which is leading the investigation, said of the most recent incident:

“This means they must have got a high dose and our hypothesis is that they must have handled a container that we are now seeking”.

Can the Minister confirm that the police have not been able to talk to either victim and therefore do not know for sure how they were contaminated, what sort of container they are looking for or where to find it?

One hundred detectives were already working round the clock to try to establish how Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley were contaminated with Novichok. What will change as a result of this becoming a murder inquiry? Has what has been assumed to be an accidental poisoning resulting in the tragic death of Sturgess been caused by an even higher dose of nerve agent than the deliberate poisoning of the Skripals, or has this case been fatal for some other reason?

Neil Basu also said that he was “unable to say” whether the incident in Amesbury was linked to the poisoning of the Skripals on 3 March, although that was the police’s working hypothesis. Yet the Statement says that both individuals were exposed to the same type of Novichok used to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March. Can the Minister explain the difference between what appears to be those two very different statements?

There is reportedly growing unease among some people in Salisbury and Amesbury that they are not being given enough information. Ricky Rogers, a Wiltshire councillor and the leader of the Labour group on Wiltshire council, said that the death of Sturgess had “heightened tension”. He said:

“Local residents have never been told enough about the first incident back in March. I think someone from counter-terrorism needs to come here and tell us what they know”.

I repeat the question that I asked the noble Baroness on Thursday, to which I received no reply. What can she say to the people of Salisbury and Amesbury to reassure them?

I thank both noble Lords for their questions. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about the prospect of being able to name the suspects. Clearly, there is now a murder investigation. We have the poisoning of the Skripals, plus the gentleman in hospital. An investigation is ongoing and, as with any investigation, one would always hope to get to the truth of who it was. The Russian state was named in the original poisoning of the Skripals. As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, there is a working assumption that the poison in this case is the same as was used on the Skripals. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said that the risk is low but lethal, and he is absolutely right. This nerve agent is lethal, and all the more so because it is so difficult to detect.

In terms of repeated messages to the public, the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked again what I can say to reassure them. I can only repeat the Chief Medical Officer’s point that the risk is very low but that residents should be vigilant. Residents can expect to see an increased police presence and wide cordons round the locations to protect the public. That will look very similar to the activity that took place in Salisbury earlier this year. The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies is keeping the current public health advice under review, and the Home Secretary has asked it to provide him with a further update tomorrow. Residents who are worried should refer to the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and Public Health England, which draws on the full breadth of the specialist scientific expertise available to the Government. Wiltshire Police has set up two telephone numbers for anyone who has concerns relating to this incident, and of course the media continue to emphasise vigilance but also that the risk remains low.

On that point, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about the role of the PCC. The counterterrorist police are leading the investigation but the PCC will liaise with them carefully and closely as they continue their investigation. They have an operational role, whereas the PCC will have much more of a strategic role going forward and during the investigation.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked whether we are sure that the threat has now gone. That would be the hope. Clearly, the police are continuing to surveil the area and are trying to get to the source of the contamination. We hope that when the source is found the threat will have gone, but the whole investigation is ongoing, so I cannot say with certainty that it has completely gone.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked a valid question: if the police have not spoken to the victims, how do they know that there was a container? He will recall that last week the police spoke to witnesses. There is CCTV footage of the movements of the individuals but, of course, not of the container, syringe or whatever it might be. However, the police will be operating on witness statements about the movement of the two individuals and what they were seen to be doing. The noble Lord also asked whether this would be treated as a murder inquiry. The death of Dawn Sturgess is already being treated as a murder inquiry. I conclude by saying that I take the Chief Medical Officer’s advice that people are at low risk but it is wise that they are vigilant in the weeks and months to come.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, again asked about the local economy. Not only has it taken a double hit but people must now be quite scared of going to Salisbury. I know that MHCLG is working with the town council on a recovery plan for the local economy.

Is there any prospect whatever that this nerve agent could have come to Salisbury other than from a state source, and does the finger of blame seem to point very clearly at the Russian state in this matter?

The noble Lord will remember that back in March we were sure that the incident bore all the hallmarks of a Russian state-type poisoning. We have no evidence that it came from another source, so I think that at this stage we can be fairly sure that the source is the Russian state.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the original advice to residents was correct? Further, does she agree that it is inconceivable that the authorities had not considered the risk of a discarded container? However, would it not have been grossly irresponsible to raise alarm among the general public when there was no possibility of finding the container, with the risk that members of the general public might go hunting for it when they were ill equipped to find it? As we know, there is the difficulty of the poison being very difficult to detect. Therefore, does the Minister agree that the advice and actions of the authorities dealing with this matter have been correct in all respects?

Like my noble friend and other noble Lords, I pay tribute to the police and the health clinicians who have worked on both incidents. Like my noble friend, I think that the original advice to residents was correct: there was, and remains, a low risk. There was no assumption about there being a source of the poison or about the possibility of it still being there, because one would not have known—in fact, one still does not know—that there was a discarded source of the poison. I suspect that local people were not hunting for it, but in the course of the investigation it will become clear how they managed to happen upon it.

My Lords, as it happens, over the weekend I was talking to a member of the clergy who is a resident of Salisbury. I simply asked her how it feels, and she said, “Grim and deeply disturbing”, because of the second occurrence. She said that people were just beginning to come out of this and now they do not know how to react. She was talking about community life, businesses and so on. In exploring support for businesses, does the Minister understand that this feels like a double hit for people in Salisbury, and that community encouragement and up-building is needed, not simply economic support? I ask this largely in the name of my noble friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury.

I totally understand the right reverend Prelate’s point and the point that his friend made to him. It is not just about the economy—it is the whole life of the community. I read a comment from a resident who said that the whole park has been cordoned off, and it had been the centre of community life. I totally take his point that it is not just a double hit: the effect has been felt more widely now. He does not need to persuade me; I understand where he is coming from. A whole-community response is needed and it must be more than just updates—there must be support for this community.