Salisbury still affected by 'trauma' of novichok poisonings five years on, says health chief

The public health chief who helped oversee the emergency response to the Salisbury novichok poisonings has told Sky News people in the city are still feeling the impacts five years on.

Tracy Daszkiewicz was the Director of Public Health and Safety for Wiltshire in 2018 when the military-grade nerve agent was used in an attempted assassination of former Russian intelligence officer turned British double agent Sergei Skripal.

Though Mr Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, came into contact with the chemical, which had been applied to the door handle of their home, they both survived.

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However, Dawn Sturgess, a 44-year-old mother-of-three, who touched a perfume bottle of the deadly chemical which had been carelessly discarded by the alleged Russian assassins, later died in hospital.

The incident put Salisbury at the centre of a bitter diplomatic row between the UK and Russia and for weeks the city became the focus of the world media's attention.

Saturday marks the fifth anniversary of the Skripal poisonings and while Ms Daszkiewicz says the city has moved past the incident, she says it has left a lasting impact on some.

Speaking to the Sky News Daily podcast with Niall Paterson, Ms Daszkiewicz said: "We can't lose sight of the fact that for most people, whilst they're dealing with an emergency or living in an emergency, people just get on with it.

"And it's not until two to five years later that you start to reflect and really start to think about what happened and its impact on you.

"I'm still in contact with people that I know are still impacted.

"People don't want this to in any way to be a blot on the landscape of Salisbury, and I certainly don't because Salisbury is far more than this, but there were people that were impacted by this in an extraordinary way and remain impacted.

"So I think there is something about the trauma around this and making sure that there are systems and services there for people should they need to reach out."

Ms Daszkiewicz was thrown into the media spotlight on 4 March 2018 when Mr Skripal and his daughter were found slipping in and out of consciousness on a bench in Salisbury city centre.

The pair had been for lunch in an Italian restaurant, unaware that they had come into contact with novichok, which had been smeared on the handle of the door to their home.

Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who had been sent to Mr Skripal's house to investigate, was also taken to hospital in a serious condition. Like the Skripals, he was later discharged from hospital.

Describing the moment she found out that the incident involved a nerve agent, Ms Daszkiewicz said: "It was disbelief. I mean, it was an extraordinary thing.

"You train for all sorts of things and, you train for chemicals as extreme as this, but the fact that it has been used in a city like Salisbury in peacetime is extraordinary.

"And I don't think there's any amount of training or anything that would let you think that that would ever be probable.

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"There's always been a motto amongst the emergency response within Wiltshire about responding to the unusual in the usual way, and that actually came into being with this."

Ms Daszkiewicz also spoke about the death of Ms Sturgess, a member of the public who had no links to the Skripals.

She and her partner, Charlie Rowley, came into contact with the nerve agent through a discarded bottle, which, it is believed, was used by the Russian assassins to apply to the door of Mr Skripal's home.

Mr Rowley found the bottle and gave it to Ms Sturgess as a gift, exposing both of them to the nerve agent.

Ms Daszkiewicz said: "She (Dawn) was a stakeholder on a piece of work we were doing (for public health).

"I'd met her on three separate occasions for this particular piece of work.

"And, you know, she was just such a vibrant woman with this incredible dry wit. And I think seeing her image just completely floored me.

"It (her death) was just devastating and I think the two things that stay with me are the fact that she was a young woman with three children and that they were an ordinary family and just very private.

"Just very lovely, ordinary people."

Ms Daszkiewicz has since gone on to help lead the area's response to the COVID pandemic and is now with Public Health England as Deputy Director of Population Health and Wellbeing for Southwest England.

Her work during the response to the novichok poisonings was also portrayed in 2020 for the crime drama The Salisbury Poisonings, in which she was played by British star Anne-Marie Duff.

Speaking about the series, she said: "She was so, so brilliant.

"She came and spent the day with me and she was so compassionate about everything that happened and wanted to know the things that really mattered to people during the time.

"And she portrayed it with such feeling. I'm so grateful for her because it wasn't sensationalised and it didn't become gimmicky or it would become a spy story."

You can listen to Niall Paterson's full interview with Tracy Daszkiewicz on the Sky News Daily podcast.