One month on from nerve agent attack, Salisbury inches towards normality

SALISBURY, England (Reuters) - Normality is slowly returning to Salisbury after the poisoning of a former Russian double-agent with nerve agent a month ago thrust this elegant cathedral city into the center of an international maelstrom.

A local council sign welcomes vistors to the city of Salisbury, Britain, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

But while the city center is much busier than it was in the days after Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found slumped on a bench outside a shopping center, locals said that the effects of the incident were still being felt.

“It will take a while and I think in the end we will get there and everything hopefully will get back to normal,” said Julia Evans, 71, who works in a local fish shop, adding sales initially dropped hugely after the attack but had slowly recovered.

The area around the bench – which has since been removed by forensic investigators – remains roped off, as well as a Zizzi pizza restaurant and the Mill pub which were visited by the Skripals before they were found unconscious.

On the Tuesday after the Easter weekend, the streets were full of locals and visitors on tours of the medieval city, making the most of market day and free parking in the center.

Britain’s interior ministry has said the risk to the public is small. But there is still a heavy police presence, and in the days afterwards, visitors to the restaurant and the pub were advised to clean their possessions with baby wipes and detergent.

For a city that relies heavily on tourism, that created concern that fears of contamination and the high police presence meant visitors would be put off.

And on Wednesday, a Reuters photographer saw police in black, protective suits working in the cordoned-off areas around the Mill pub.

“To me it’s not going on as normal. There’s a big chunk of Salisbury totally cut off both in terms of commerce and in terms of just walking around,” said Alex Garbut, 69, who lives nearby.

Market traders in the Maltings shopping center said business had been heavily affected.

The government has offered a compensation fund of 1 million pounds ($1.4 million) to help businesses recover, and the message from a local lawmaker was that Salisbury remained open for business.

“Obviously we’ve got sites which make it very visually difficult sometimes, but ... only a small number of businesses are shut,” said Salisbury’s Member of Parliament John Glen. “There’s a lot of goodwill across the country towards Salisbury.”

The attack has made Salisbury the epicenter of an international furor. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is examining samples to assess Britain’s claim that a nerve agent from the Novichok family was used in the attack and that Russia carried it out. Russia denies involvement and has said Britain itself could have been behind the attack.

“It’s certainly put a very quiet place on the map, hasn’t it?” William Phillips, 72, a retired Salisbury resident, said. “Not much happens in Salisbury really.”

Writing by Alistair Smout; editing by Stephen Addison