The British woman killed by a Russian military nerve agent suffered a huge dose after handling a container contaminated by novichok, believed to be from the same batch used in March’s attempted assassination of Sergei and Julia Skripal, police today said.
The Metropolitan police assistant commissioner Neil Basu said the substance that led to Dawn Sturgess and her partner Charlie Rowley falling ill on Saturday was in a vessel or container when the couple came across it.
Police have opened a murder investigation after Sturgess died in hospital on Sunday at 8.26pm.
Basu said Sturgess and Rowley got a high dose of novichok after handling a container containing the nerve agent. It was most likely that the container police are hunting for was linked to the attack four months earlier on the Skripals.
He said detectives would need forensic evidence before definitively saying the novichok used in the first attack had made the British couple ill.
Basu said of his detectives: “They are unable to say at this moment whether or not the nerve agent found in this incident is linked to the attack in March on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. However, this remains our main line of inquiry.
“In the four months since the Skripals and Nick Bailey were poisoned, no other people besides Dawn and Charlie have presented with symptoms. Their reaction is so severe it resulted in Dawn’s death and Charlie being critically ill. This means they must have got a high dose. Our hypothesis is they must have handled the container we are now seeking.”
Several sites have been cordoned off; the three of most interest are Queen Elizabeth gardens in Salisbury, where the British couple spent part of Friday; the Salisbury homeless hostel where Sturgess lived and both visited on Friday; and Rowley’s Amesbury home, which they also visited on Friday.
The home secretary, Sajid Javid, chaired a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergencies committee on Monday.
Later, he told MPs in the Commons that Porton Down scientists had been able to recover novichok from only the blood of Sturgess and Rowley. It was too small an amount to examine to see if it was from the same batch used in the March attack, making it more important that investigators hunt down the item that contaminated the British couple.
The defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, directly accused Moscow on Monday. He told the Commons: “The simple reality is that Russia has committed an attack on British soil which has seen the death of a British citizen. That is something that I think the world will unite with us in actually condemning.”
A relative at Sturgess’s family home in Durrington, near Amesbury, said the family was “devastated” but declined to comment further.
Service personnel wearing protective gloves and breathing apparatus towed a red van away from a road in Durrington on Sunday night. Police officers had stood guard near the van in Avondown Road during the day, neighbours said.
The road was cordoned off and members of the RAF Regiment arrived in protective gear. They wrapped the van in plastic, loaded it on to a military lorry and drove it away for tests at Porton Down.
The road is close to where Sturgess’s parents live and two miles from Amesbury. Neighbours said they did not know who owned the van.
There is growing unease among some people in Salisbury and Amesbury that they are not being given enough information.
Ricky Rogers, a Wiltshire councillor andthe leader of the Labour group on Wiltshire council, said the death of Sturgess had “heightened tension”.
“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,” he said.