The last 48 hours of the couple poisoned by the deadly Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury before their hospitalisation have been revealed as the police have said the search for the missing cannister could take months.
Dawn Sturgess, 44, and boyfriend Charles Rowley, 45, are believed to have fallen ill after finding a vial, syringe or tub used to carry the nerve agent used in Salisbury.
Hundreds of specialists are now searching for the ‘contaminated item’ left behind by the assassins who targeted Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on March 4.
Drones have been spotted scanning parts of Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury, Wiltshire, where it is believed Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley picked up the cannister.
Police have revealed that on June 29 the couple were spotted together at Ms Sturgess’ homeless shelter, the John Baker House in Salisbury, at around 12.20pm.
After leaving the shelter they went to several shops before visiting Queen Elizabeth Gardens. At around 4.20pm they returned and then caught the bus to Amesbury at around 10.30pm.
Detectives believe they then spent the night together at Mr Rowley’s house. The next day, South West Ambulance Service were called to the house at 10.15am and Ms Sturgess was taken to hospital.
Mr Rowley then visited Boots at around midday before going back to his house half an hour later. He then went to Amesbury Baptist Centre at 1.45pm, before returning home at 3pm.
At 6.20pm an ambulance was called to his house and he was also taken to hospital.
The timeline comes as chemical teams in gas masks were spotted going into both Ms Sturgess’s homeless shelter and Mr Rowley’s house in a police operation that could take months.
How could the new Novichok victims have been poisoned 4 months after attack?
A friend of Dawn Sturgess and Charles Rowley said she believes the couple found a vial and needle and believed it was heroin.
In fact the syringe could have been used by the assassins sent to kill the Skripals and used it because it was small and easy to spray on Sergei’s front door.
A former neighbour of Dawn Sturgess said she would pick up discarded cigarettes to bolster her own tobacco tin.
He said: ‘If she’s been collecting fag ends up to build up a stash of tobacco, she could have smoked the poison. Lots of people collect half smoked cigarettes – if that’s what got the spy and he’s chucked it down somewhere – Dawn could have picked it up.’
Police are also likely to be investigating claims that the couple may have found a bag and taken it away.
Inside that bag may have been the vial or syringe containing the Novichok.
In a statement released today, the Metropolitan Police said: ‘Due to the unique challenges involved with this operation, police activity is expected to take weeks and months to complete.’
They added: ‘A number of sites have been cordoned off in the Salisbury and Amesbury areas. These are believed to be the areas the man and woman visited before they fell ill. This is a precautionary measure and meticulous and systematic searches of these areas are now under way.
‘Officers are wearing protective equipment as they carry out their activity and protective barriers may also be installed at some of these sites.
‘There is no evidence that the man and woman visited any of the sites that were decontaminated following the attempted murders of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March this year.’
Experts said today that the new Salisbury Novichok poisonings will help Britain unmask the assassins allegedly sent by Russia.
Police and the secret services finally know where the assassins dumped their weapon – and can use CCTV to track them.
The hit squad sent to murder Sergei Skripal probably sprayed Novichok on his front door before trailing him and his daughter Yulia through Salisbury until they saw them collapse on a park bench on March 4.
Believing their work was done they appear to have dumped their weapon in Queen Elizabeth Gardens before fleeing Salisbury and probably the country.
It was there where Dawn and Charlie probably picked it up.
Police have admitted they cannot guarantee others won’t be poisoned and the authorities warned hundreds of people who came close to the couple and their homes to urgently wash their clothes and wipe down items such as jewellery and phones.
The Government says it is sure the Kremlin is to blame for the trail of devastation caused by the Russian-made nerve agent.
Security Minister Ben Wallace told the BBC: ‘We have world-leading expertise in this country that we will eventually find out who did it and what happened. That may take years, that may take months’.
Chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon added: ‘I understand that the security services and the police are pretty convinced that they are going to find and get a resolution to who attacked [the Skripals]. The Russians could get on the front foot and help us out here’.
Last night footage emerged of Dawn Sturgess buying beer and wine in off licences in Salisbury before walking back to her homeless shelter.
She is seen brushing past a small child to buy alcohol in a store in Salisbury and handing over cash to the shop assistant.
Dawn and Charlie are believed to have visited at least five stores in Salisbury on the day before they fell ill.
Security sources have said that they couple had the largest concentration of Novichok on their hands, sparking fears anything they touched could be contaminated.
Novichok used in Salisbury was probably stored in glass bottle
The Novichok used to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal could have been kept in a glass vessel and extracted through a needle or syringe, an academic has said.
One theory being investigated by the police is whether Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley have inadvertently found the container used to transport the toxic substance.
Professor emeritus of environmental toxicology at Leeds University, Alastair Hay, said nerve agents – due to being quite corrosive – are usually kept in glass containers, and are made in glass-lined reaction vessels.
Asked by the Press Association what the Novichok used in the Salisbury attack may have been stored in, he said: ‘Some sort of glass vessel would have been fine.
‘With a decent cap to it that would have been safe for someone to carry, but they would also probably have it in some other leak-proof container.
‘Because obviously what you are trying to avoid at all costs is any sort of contact with it.
‘If you are decanting any sort of liquid there is always a huge risk of exposure, so it is possible it was in some container and they took something out with a needle and syringe.
They suspect the object could be some kind of ‘delivery device’ laced with Novichok nerve agent that was recklessly discarded after the attack.
It could be a syringe and believing it was either heroin or crack cocaine they may have injected it into their blood.
Some have claimed it could have been on an item like a cigarette and they ‘smoked the poison’.
The couple remained in a critical condition in hospital last night.
Charlie’s brother Matthew said today: ‘He’s my younger brother, I love him to bits. I don’t want anything to happen to him, and yet it has.
‘How would you deal with it, you know? It’s heartbreaking.’
After another terrifying day in Salisbury, it also emerged:
Lab tests confirming the couple were struck by the military grade nerve agent plunged Salisbury back into crisis. Hundreds of police, security and public health officials, are swarming across the city.
Investigators are urgently trying to retrace the steps of the ill-fated couple last Friday as they shopped and relaxed in Queen Elizabeth Gardens. The park, along with a city hostel and an address in Amesbury, seven miles away, are completely sealed off. Police also locked down a Baptist church and a branch of Boots where Mr Rowley picked up a prescription after it is feared he was exposed.
Both victims had collapsed, hallucinating and foaming at the mouth, on Saturday. Officers suspected they may have consumed a ‘bad batch’ of heroin but two days later blood tests at Porton Down confirmed they too have been in contact with novichok.
They now believe Mr Rowley and Mrs Sturgess, a mother of three, may have spotted something unusual on the ground and picked it up. Friends said Mr Rowley, a recovering addict, sometimes trawled through bins looking for things he could sell. So far nothing has been found and police say they have no idea what the highly toxic nerve agent was contained in.
Experts suspect the couple came across the item after it was thrown away ‘in a haphazard way’. England’s chief medical officer urged people not to pick up ‘any unknown or already dangerous objects’. The item is not believed to be a needle or syringe, but could even be a cigarette. One source said: ‘Novichok doesn’t evaporate. It exists forever. Incineration is the most effective method. But they are not going to burn Salisbury down.’
Whitehall officials insisted there is nothing to suggest a ‘clean up failure’ as none of the areas involved featured in the multi-million pound decontamination operation. But the authorities face serious questions over why the possibility that potentially deadly materials could have been dumped elsewhere has apparently not been considered.
Chemical warfare expert Philip Ingram said: ‘They could have thrown it under a hedge, they could have thrown it into a school playground. They could’ve put it under the seat in a local train.
‘By not focusing on that, they have put the public at risk.
‘What they used is what I class as the ostrich effect. ‘Well it’s all too complicated so we will stick our heads in the sand and hope nothing happens.’ Unfortunately something has happened.’
The authorities insist areas of Salisbury already cleaned as part of the Skripal incident are safe. But yesterday Wiltshire Chief Constable Kier Pritchard warned there would be a ‘significant increase’ in police activity. He said they could still not confirm where the contamination took place, adding: ‘It’s too early for us to be able to understand that. We simply do not know.’ But he added he could confirm precisely everywhere the couple visited before they collapsed.
Debbie Stark, of Public Health England, insisted the threat to the public remains ‘low’. She said the situation is a ’cause for concern’ but health experts are ‘working tirelessly’ to safeguard people.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid yesterday blamed the Kremlin for the trail of devastation. He told MPs: ‘The eyes of the world are currently on Russia, not least because of the World Cup. It is now time that the Russian state comes forward and explains exactly what has gone on.
‘It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns, to be dumping grounds for poison.’
But the Kremlin said it was part of UK efforts to tarnish the World Cup.