01/10/2018 21:45 BST | Updated 02/10/2018 09:22 BST

Exclusive: Wiltshire Council Calls On Insurers To Step In After Salisbury Poisonings

A director at the council told HuffPost UK small businesses must be supported.

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The council overseeing recovery operations in Salisbury has called on insurance companies to “respond properly” to local businesses crippled by the aftermath of unprecedented nerve agent attacks earlier this year.

Wiltshire council said it is working with the government and the Association of British Insurers to ensure insurance firms “step in” to cover refurbishment costs.

This is amid concerns from the council that some could step away by dubbing the poisonings “state-sponsored terrorism” – which it said insurers are less likely to pay out for – instead of dealing with the incidents as criminal action, which they would.

Local and central government has stepped in to financially assist affected businesses, particularly smaller ones, with the idea that the firms will pay the money back after they receive insurance payments.

More than £5 million has been spent by the Government in efforts to boost recovery, including almost £1.4m put towards preventing business closures and safeguarding local jobs.

Access to a number of chain and independent shops in Salisbury was restricted from the public for months, behind cordons erected around sites being investigated and decontaminated by police and the military.

Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia almost died in a targeted attack after being poisoned by nerve agent Novichok in the city in March.

The assault on the Skripals was followed by a second incident in neighbouring town Amesbury four months later, in which Dawn Sturgess died after handling a bottle discarded by the perpetrators. Her partner, Charlie Rowley, fell ill but survived.

Public Health England said risk of contamination to the public is low, but trade in the city is down 12%, with local bed and breakfasts reporting a 40% fall in visitors in the aftermath, the local authority said.

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The Mill Pub has now been handed back to owners for refurbishment.

Alistair Cunningham, corporate director for growth, investment and place at Wiltshire Council, told HuffPost UK: “The Mill pub and Zizzi’s [directly affected sites] have a programme of refurbishment that they are bringing forward so that they can re-open as soon as possible.

“We are supporting the other businesses affected by looking for insurance companies to step in. Working closely with central government, we want to make sure that insurance companies do step forward and don’t try and say that this was an attack or state sponsored terrorism –  it wasn’t – it was a criminal act.

“These businesses were denied access to their premises because there had been a criminal act.

″We’ve written to all the businesses that way and we’re working with the Association of British Insurers to make sure that we actually see insurance companies stepping in where it’s appropriate to (cover) some of those costs.”

Payouts by insurance companies in such cases depend entirely on the insurer. While different types of insurance against terrorism do exist, they are usually designed to cover the impact of large terror attacks, or where hundreds of claimants are involved.

In smaller cases, business interruption cover can help affected business. If firms do not have this, insurers can make ex gratia (goodwill) payments at their discretion.

Cunningham added that the council had received a “mixed bag” of responses from insurance firms, with some making goodwill payments and others “stepping back”.

He said while it is not possible to think of “everything you’re possibly trying to insure against”, it is vital that insurance companies are held “to the highest standards”.

“Some have stepped in and have been brilliant from day one, some made ex gratia payments, saying ‘we’re not going to set liabilities and sums to bring you back’, which is fine,” he added.

“We’re just making sure – and it will take about six to eight months to make sure it plays out – that every insurance company responds properly.”

Cunningham said one of the main drivers of the recovery process is to stop smaller firms, who don’t have the same resources to manage cash flow as larger companies, from going out of business.

You get this hysteria but actually, Salisbury is an incredibly safe environment. And that’s the bit that goes missing.Alistair Cunningham, director at Wiltshire Council

“Once a business has gone, you can’t recover it and a lot of these are independent and we didn’t want to lose them,” he said.

The city is getting back on its feet with almost all sites returned to their owners for refurbishment, including The Mill Pub and Zizzi’s restaurant which were visited by the Skripals on the day they were poisoned.

Their house on Christie Miller Road, as well as the home of Rowley, is being decontaminated by military teams.

But the city is focused now on boosting footfall and promoting its positive, historic brand in order to break the negative links that have been created between the city and the poisonings.

This includes putting on exclusive events and abolishing afternoon and evening parking fees around the city centre until Christmas.

Cunningham says he estimates that the tourist destination will recover completely within the next two years.

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Salisbury Cathedral

Despite Salisbury being “one of the safest cities in the country and one of the safest cities on the planet”, Cunningham said recent events where a couple claimed they were poisoned at a local Italian restaurant “drags people back”.

He said: “The Prezzo incident…with social media, what happened goes viral, and that doesn’t help the city at all.

“You get this hysteria but actually, Salisbury is an incredibly safe environment. And that’s the bit that goes missing.

“You had this targeted attack, a shocking criminal act on an individual and his daughter and then you had this repercussion because [the attackers] couldn’t care less about what they were doing, it seems, and we had the unfortunate incident for Charlie and the dreadful outcome for Dawn Sturgess.

“But that was a one-target incident and in the context of Salisbury, it is a safe city.”