Salisbury gardens at centre of Novichok poisonings probe to reopen

Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury, Wiltshire (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The gardens which have been at the centre of an investigation into the Novichok poisonings in Salisbury are to reopen to the public.

Police will lift the cordons at Queen Elizabeth Gardens on Friday afternoon after being closed for nearly two months.

The area was cordoned off on July 5 after being confirmed as a location that Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley had visited prior to collapsing.

The pair fell ill at Mr Rowley’s home in Amesbury on June 30 and Ms Sturgess, a mother of three, died in hospital eight days later having never regained consciousness.

It is believed they were exposed to a military grade nerve agent from a perfume bottle discarded by those responsible for the attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

The father and daughter were found unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury city centre in March having been poisoned by Novichok. They have since been released from hospital.

The attacks caused an international diplomatic incident, with Home Secretary Sajid Javid accusing the Russian state of using Britain as a “dumping ground for poison”.

Earlier this month, The Mill public house, where the Skripals had a drink before falling ill, was handed back to its owners after being thoroughly decontaminated.

The Mill pub Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA

Wiltshire Police said it was expected to spend more than £10 million dealing with the Novichok poisonings.

Officers from 40 other forces were called in after two major incidents were declared in Salisbury and Amesbury in the space of four months.

Queen Elizabeth Gardens was closed off to allow counter-terrorism officers to carry out their inquiries, while a larger section of the park was closed as a highly precautionary measure, with meticulous and methodical fingertip searches being conducted.

A police water search team also conducted a thorough search of the shallow stream adjacent to the children’s play park and were able to remove a lot of broken glass and other discarded items.

Police conduct fingertip searches Credit: Ben Birchall/PA

They also conducted searches along the banks of the River Nadder and River Avon that flow through the gardens within the cordon, collecting discarded objects and litter from the river bank.

Deputy Chief Constable Paul Mills said: “Today marks a milestone in terms of our ongoing response to the incident.

“Alongside the counter-terrorism policing network, we have worked methodically and meticulously to assess if there was anything of relevance in the park to the investigation and ensure that there was no wider risk to the public.

“Queen Elizabeth Gardens has been searched by specially trained officers and the results reviewed.

“Decontamination activity was conducted, is now complete and the site is safe and can be returned to public use.

“Further to that process, and further to the thorough searches that have taken place, we are satisfied that the park and gardens pose no risk to the public and can now be fully reopened for the public to once again enjoy.

“I would like to, on behalf of all the partnership agencies involved in the response to this incident, thank the public for their patience and support whilst the cordons have been in place.”

Alistair Cunningham, chair of the South Wiltshire Recovery Coordinating Group, said: “I am really pleased Queen Elizabeth Gardens, which is a really popular open space in the city centre, has been reopened for community use.

“Its closure has had an impact on footfall into the city and its reopening is an important and positive step for the city moving forward and getting back to normal.”

Meanwhile, the Government has pledged a further £2.5 million to Wiltshire Police to help with the costs of the Novichok-related incidents.

It brings the total costs reclaimed by the force to £6.6 million, Wiltshire Police’s police and crime commissioner said.