A Salisbury couple taken critically ill at the weekend may have been poisoned by the same nerve agent used against former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, police fear.
A major incident was declared in the city yesterday with several locations sealed off, after a man and woman in their 40s became unwell with similar symptoms to the Skripals.
Charles Rowley, 45, and girlfriend, Dawn Sturgess, 44, remained critically ill in Salisbury District Hospital last night, after being exposed to what police described as an “unknown substance”.
Footage emerged on Wednesday night that showed a man who appeared to be Mr Rowley being wheeled from a house in Amesbury on a stretcher by paramedics.
Mr Rowley is a registered heroin addict and police and medics initially thought the incident was drug-related.
But four days after the couple fell into a coma, the alarm was raised when they failed to respond to treatment and it emerged they had spent several hours in the vicinity close to where the Skripals were poisoned.
Public Health England, which had said there was no significant risk to the wider public, last night said it was reviewing that advice.
The incident comes less than a fortnight after the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall paid a visit to Salisbury to offer support to locals affected by disruption caused by the Skripal poisoning.
Experts at the nearby Porton Down government defence laboratory were carrying out tests to identify what the substance involved was, amid fears it could be the Novichok nerve agent.
One theory being explored is that the couple were accidentally contaminated by traces of the chemical that had been left over following the attack on the Skripals.
The Government held two Cobra meetings yesterday and a spokesman for the Prime Minister said the matter was being treated with the “utmost seriousness”.
Russia has denied any involvement in the deliberate poisonings of the Skripals, but the latest development comes at a particularly sensitive time as they play host to the World Cup finals.
Counter-terrorism police who were called in to investigate the latest development said they were keeping an open mind until the results of the ongoing tests were known.
Deputy Chief Constable Paul Mills from Wiltshire Police said: “It was initially believed that the two patients fell ill after possibly using drugs from a contaminated batch.
“However, further testing is now ongoing to establish the substance which led to these patients becoming ill. At this stage it is not yet clear if a crime has been committed.
“We are keeping an open mind as to the circumstances regarding this incident and will continue to work closely with partners to progress our enquiries.”
A friend of the couple described how Ms Sturgess, a mother of three, had suddenly fallen ill on Saturday morning, followed by Mr Rowley several hours later.
Sam Hobson, 29, said they had both been frothing at the mouth and hallucinating before falling into a coma.
The unemployed car mechanic said he had visited Mr Rowley’s flat in Muggleton Road, Amesbury, at around 11am on Saturday to find a number of ambulances outside.
He said: “Dawn was on an ambulance stretcher and Charlie was in tears, saying she’d been complaining of a headache and then started having a fit.”
While paramedics rushed Ms Sturgess to Salisbury District Hospital, Mr Rowley went to a nearby Boots Chemist in Amesbury to pick up his daily methadone prescription.
The pair then went on to Amesbury Baptist Centre, where free food had been laid on as part of a community event.
But when they returned to Ms Sturgess’s flat to pack some clothes for her to have in hospital Mr Rowley also took ill.
“Charlie started sweating and acting strange, rocking back and forth, his eyes wide open,” said Mr Hobson. “He wasn’t responding to me so I called an ambulance and they came dressed in hazchem protection suits.”
Mr Hobson said the previous day the three of them had visited several locations in Salisbury close to the riverside bench at the Maltings shopping centre where the Skripals collapsed.
After declaring a major incident police sealed off all the areas the couple had been in the hours before they fell ill, including Queen Elizabeth Gardens, the Muggleton Road address, the Boots branch and the Amesbury Baptist Centre.
Police also sealed off Ms Sturgess’s home in John Baker House, a property used by social services to accommodate people with drug and alcohol problems, which is just a two minute walk from Zizzi restaurant, where the Skripals ate before collapsing from the effects of Novichok.
Mr Skripal, a former double agent and daughter Yulia, who had been visiting him from Moscow, spent two months in hospital after being poisoned with Novichok.
They were discharged in May and moved to a secure location where they are continuing to recover.
A meeting of the Government’s Cobra emergencies committee took place at an official level in the Cabinet Office on Wednesday morning to discuss events in Amesbury.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “This is an incident which understandably is being treated with the utmost seriousness.
“Ministers and the Prime Minister are being kept updated and there was a meeting this morning of officials to receive updates on the facts of the situation.”
A Government source said: “Senior Whitehall officials are being kept informed of what is going on on the ground as we seek to establish the facts of this case. No definitive conclusions have yet been established.”
Friend who spent day in Salisbury with couple
Sam Hobson, a friend of the couple, said that the day before the pair collapsed he went into Salisbury town centre with them to visit shops and have a drink in Queen Elizabeth Gardens.
These were later sealed off by police, along with the Boots and the Amesbury Baptist Centre.
Mr Hobson said Ms Sturgess, who has known Mr Rowley for nearly a year, is not a drug user. Mr Rowley and Ms Sturgess, who are unemployed, each have a young daughter from different relationships. “I just hope they pull through this,” said Mr Hobson.
Mr Hobson told how the day before Mr Rowley and Ms Sturgess fell ill, the three of them had visited several locations in Salisbury close to the riverside bench at the Maltings shopping centre where the Skripals collapsed after succumbing to the effects of Novichok nerve agent.