(Bloomberg) -- The second nerve-agent poisoning in southern England in four months comes at a particularly difficult time for Theresa May.
In the next 10 days, the U.K. prime minister faces a tough NATO summit and will host U.S. President Donald Trump, and before that she’ll try to unite her squabbling cabinet behind a vision for Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union. Now she must contain the fallout from the poisoning of two Britons in southern England that police say were exposed to the same nerve agent that contaminated a former Russian spy in March.
The latest victims, a British man and woman in their 40s, are in critical condition after coming into contact with the substance, Novichok, just miles from the site of the March 4 attack on ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. The investigation is being led by counter-terrorism police.
The incident also puts the spotlight back on Vladimir Putin, who has denied British accusations that Russia was behind the Salisbury attack. The circumstances remain unclear, and one theory being considered by U.K. authorities is that the victims stumbled across the substance and weren’t its intended targets.
U.K. Home Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament that Russian authorities needed to explain how the poison ended up in the country.
“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,” Javid said after a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee Thursday morning. “We will stand up to the actions that threaten our security.”
Neil Basu, the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism coordinator, said late Wednesday in a televised news conference, that the investigation team was trying to establish how the pair came into contact with the nerve agent.
Security Minister Ben Wallace told BBC Radio 4 that police are working on the assumption that the victims weren’t directly targeted.
“At the moment we see no evidence to link these two latest victims to either the Skripals or indeed the original sites that have been decontaminated,” Wallace said.
May, for her part, is to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
The timing is sensitive: NATO leaders meet next week to discuss threats including Russian aggression, and Trump is due to visit Britain at the end of the week. He’s then due to head to Helsinki for a summit with Putin on July 16 that already has U.K. ministers worried about what the U.S. president will promise his Russian counterpart.
British scientists identified the substance in the March attack as the Russian nerve agent Novichok. May expelled 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation, and rallied allies including the U.S. to expel over 100 more.
“We are not in a position to say whether the nerve agent was from the same batch that the Skripals were exposed to,” Basu said. “The possibility that these two investigations might be linked is clearly a line of enquiry for us.”
In the latest incident, the two people were taken to hospital after being found unconscious at a house in Amesbury, about 8 miles (13 kilometers) from Salisbury. Authorities at first believed they had become sick after taking heroin or crack cocaine from a contaminated batch. They conducted further tests to establish the nature of the substance, and brought in counter-terrorism police to help in their investigation.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.