15 June 2020: What we learnt from ‘The Salisbury Poisonings’ by Sue Shirt, Executive Director of Customer Experience

Two years on from the Novichok incident in Salisbury, and the tragic death of Dawn Sturgess in Amesbury. Yesterday (Sunday 14 June) saw the first episode of a BBC drama called the 'The Salisbury Poisonings'.

Photo of a white house

The drama is a reminder of how close to home the crisis was: Charlie Rowley (Dawn Sturgess' partner) was a Stonewater resident, and the nerve agent poisoned them both. Two Stonewater homes were also impacted, along with the wider community who dealt with the aftermath. Two years on, and we have recently shared plans to demolish the flats, following an extensive deep clean by DEFRA.

Although the media coverage moved on to the wider crisis, our role at Stonewater continued, and a dedicated group of colleagues continue to support customers and work with the local authorities.

The BBC Drama – The Salisbury Poisonings

The programmes focus on the internal mechanisms of a public health crisis response has obvious parallels with the current Coronavirus pandemic.

The drama follows the work of Tracy Daszkiewicz, the Director of Public Health for Wiltshire Council, as she works with colleagues to try to combat a lethal and invisible enemy – Novichok.

The public health response team led by Tracy instigated a lockdown. They closed aspects of the local economy, set up an elaborate system of contact tracing and testing, sourced and distributed personal protective equipment (PPE) for use on the frontlines, and they dealt, every day, with a terrified and frustrated public.

Perhaps one of the less well-known external elements of this incident is Stonewater’s involvement. On Saturday 30 June, we received reports of an ambulance attending one of our flats in Muggleton Road, Amesbury. Two people were treated (Charlie Rowley, a Stonewater resident, and his girlfriend Dawn Sturgess). Initial reports suggested a suspected the use of contaminated drugs, but a much darker scenario began to emerge and, by July 4th, both Dawn and Charlie were in a critical condition after a suspected nerve agent poisoning.

The next day, it was confirmed that the couple had been exposed to Novichok and Charlie’s flat, along with a neighbouring Stonewater property, became the focus of everyone’s attention.

While the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Team were the public face of the unfolding events, Stonewater played a key role in joining with other agencies (including the local Council, Police, Defra and South Wiltshire Recovery Coordinating Group) to manage the incident on the ground.

We had three priorities:

  • Firstly, to support the multi-agency response by co-ordinating statements, clarifying information and preparing for a potential evacuation of residents in the vicinity.
  • Secondly, to support our customers, many of who were naturally afraid, confused and desperately seeking assurance as well as being a natural focus of media attention.
  • Thirdly, identifying and supporting our business colleagues, including frontline staff who had visited the homes before the presence of the nerve agent was uncovered.

We immediately established a crisis response team, making sure that we were visible and accessible to affected customers and partners. Our focus was to predict what was required before we were asked and to make life easy for those whose homes were affected or whose role it was to keep the community safe and investigate the situation. So we dedicated resources at an executive and operational level and gathered together useful data, maps and scheme designs. You would be amazed how much of it was asked for and it was helpful to everyone to be ready to push that send button immediately. We also managed the day-to-day things like preparing Q&As, and keeping the Regulator, Board and frontline colleagues in the loop.

The nature of events at Amesbury were constantly evolving and above all, we aimed to put people and the local community at the forefront our response. Making sure that we undertook welfare calls to the local residents, often daily, and working extra hard to find a new home for our customer from the flat below who had just 30 minutes to move out.

When Dawn sadly died on July 8th, 2018 local colleagues asked to attend the service, a true reflection of how deeply they felt about the people involved, and a request we were happy to support.

Charlie’s former home was finally declared safe in January 2019 and I attended to take our home back, seeing first hand the impact of the clean-up operation. The pictures show just how dangerous Novichok is. Nothing could have prepared me for seeing our brand new home back to its former shell, but if I wasn’t willing to go in I could not expect colleagues or customers to ever do so. Just last week Mr Rowley’s former home has once again been the focus of attention both with local residents and with national media as we consulted on plans to demolish the property this summer and shared our plans on what we hope to do with the site once it is cleared.

Whilst crisis management is something we expect to do at Stonewater, for any organisation it’s hard to imagine a more unlikely scenario than a Russian nerve agent attack. Nevertheless, all across the business we stepped up and delivered an exceptional response, we were decisive, demonstrating outstanding capability, insight, sensitivity, flexibility and professionalism.

As we continue to respond as a business to the effects of Covid-19 we have no doubt drawn on our experience of dealing with what we thought then was a once in a lifetime incident.

Muggleton Road, Amesbury (1)
Muggleton Road, Amesbury
Muggleton Road, Amesbury (3)