The latest Novichok poisoning followed a Wiltshire couple handling a contaminated item, police have said, as the authorities could not rule out that further people could fall ill.
The pair, named locally as Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, were taken ill on Saturday in Amesbury, around eight miles from where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in March. They are currently in hospital in a critical condition.
The Metropolitan Police said on Thursday the two patients were exposed to the nerve agent after handling a contaminated item, which has not been named.
It is understood one line of inquiry investigators are pursuing is whether Sturgess and Rowley came into contact with a contaminated container, such as a phial or a syringe, that had been discarded in public after it was used to poison the Skripals.
Earlier, security minister Ben Wallace said the couple were not directly targeted as he urged Moscow to provide information and “fill in some of the significant gaps” following the attack on the Skripals in Salisbury earlier this year.
Home secretary Sajid Javid also told Russia to “come forward and explain exactly what’s gone on”. Moscow has repeatedly denied any involvement in the poisoning.
At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Wiltshire Police Chief Constable Kier Pritchard attempted to reassure the public after the second incident in the county - and was asked whether he could rule out further Novichok being found.
Pritchard could not categorically dismiss the suggestion but said “that only two people have presented suggests this is contained rather than a broad attack”.
Javid said in a statement to the Commons on Thursday that there is no evidence to suggest that the Amesbury couple in hospital visited any of the places visited by the Skripals.
He added that all of the sites that have been decontaminated following the attempted murders of the Skripals “are safe”.
More than 100 counter-terrorism detectives are working on the case.
Wallace told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday: “The working assumption would be that these are victims of either the consequence of the previous attack, or something else, but not that they were directly targeted.”
Linking the incident to the attack on the Skripals, Wallace said: “I think what we said at the time was that this was a brazen and reckless attack in the heart of a very peaceful part of the United Kingdom, and that is part of the anger I feel about the Russian state is that they chose to use clearly a very, very toxic, highly dangerous weapon.”
Javid told MPs that he “cannot rule out” the possibility that the Novichok found in Amesbury was from the same batch used in the Salisbury attack.
“What we are absolutely clear on from Porton Down is that this is the exact same nerve agent from the Novichok family of nerve agents, but the same type of nerve agent from that family that was used in the March attack.
“We cannot attribute this to the same batch at this point and scientists will be looking into that, I’m also told that may not even be possible because of a number factors, but we cannot rule out, of course, that it was from the same batch,” Javid said.
Wallace called on Moscow to provide information, saying: “The Russian state could put this wrong right. They could tell us what happened. What they did. And fill in some of the significant gaps that we are trying to pursue.
“We have said they can come and tell us what happened. I’m waiting for the phone call from the Russian state. The offer is there. They are the ones who could fill in all the clues to keep people safe.”
The Kremlin described the Amesbury poisoning as “disturbing”, but said it had not received any appeal from the UK about the incident.
“I know nothing about any appeal,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow.
According to the Tass news agency, Peskov said: “This is very disturbing news. Of course, it triggers profound concern in connection with the similar incidents in the UK. We wish them a speedy recovery.”
The Kremlin spokesman also restated Russia’s denial of involvement in the Salisbury Novichok attack, adding that Moscow’s appeals to conduct a joint investigation with the UK into the Salisbury incident “found no reciprocity”.
According to Tass, the spokesman added: “Britain has failed to provide any convincing evidence to substantiate its accusations against Russia.”
The Amesbury couple were found unconscious at a property in Muggleton Road on Saturday, with one friend describing how Charlie was “garbling” and acting like a “zombie”, the Mirror reported.
The address where the pair were found is on a new housing development on the southern edge of the town, which lies close to Stonehenge.
Police and emergency services initially believed the pair may have taken heroin or crack cocaine “from a contaminated batch of drugs”, however further tests are now being carried out.
A number of places in the Amesbury and Salisbury area have been cordoned off as a precaution.
Mike Wade, deputy director of health protection for PHE South West, said: “Our current advice, based on the small number of casualties affected, is that there is no significant health risk to the wider public.”
But Wade added that anyone who may have been in any of the five locations showed in the graphic (below) between 10.00pm on June 29 and 6.30pm on Saturday, June 30, should wash clothes and wipe down personal items with cleansing or baby wipes.
People in Salisbury shared their concerns that this latest news will have an impact on the area, with worries that businesses will be affected.
Jason Otter, 20, assistant manager at The York Roast Co, told the Press Association: “This is obviously going to be version 2.0.
“We are going to see business go down again. When something like this happens I scour through social media and a lot of people are saying they are not going to be coming back to Wiltshire.
“They are obviously afraid so on the business side there is a big deficit.”
Keith Burton, 56, of nearby Tisbury, said: “It’s very worrying to see. It’s concerning to see. We had hoped it was all over and done with.”
On the clean-up, he added: “Perhaps they forgot about something, perhaps it was something dropped somewhere. We simply don’t know at the moment.”
John Glen, the Conservative MP for Salisbury, said he believed the couple had somehow come into contact with Novichok discarded from the Skripal incident.
Glen said: “My strong instinct is that they have somehow encountered some discarded paraphernalia from the Skripal incident and certainly there is no reason to believe they would have been targeted in any separate way, but nonetheless the uncertainty of how that happened is concerning and that’s why the five sites on a precautionary basis have been cordoned off.”
He said it was worrying that the nerve agent may have been lying dormant for three months in the Salisbury area.
Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons on Thursday her thoughts were with the victims of the poisoning, adding: “The message from Salisbury is clear – it is very much open for business. The government will continue to provide every support to the local community.”