Isolation diary: Musings on The Salisbury Poisonings

Much has already been written about the contemporary relevance of the BBC mini-series The Salisbury Poisonings which ended yesterday and is now available on i-Player. Although written and produced before anyone had ever heard of the coronavirus, the way in which the public emergency in Salisbury was handled two years ago has some uncanny parallels with the events of this year.

I was struck by one simple fact – the operation was headed by the Director of Public Health for Wiltshire, Tracy Daszkiewicz. She, in fact, was the main focus for the dramatic retelling of the story, and it is clear that her timely actions and highly professional approach to the problem prevented many people from dying from Novichok poisoning.

Directors of Public Health are in a unique position to track and trace major health emergencies. But, during this coronavirus emergency their very specific skills and local knowledge were sidelined by the Government.

At one point in the series, Tracy Daszkiewicz is challenged by a civil servant who has been sent down from Whitehall. Tracy had just learnt how Nick Bailey, who was the first police officer to enter the Skripal’s home, had become infected by the nerve agent, in spite of wearing protective clothing.  Spots of Novichok were found throughout the house; it was only when the police viewed bodycam photos of the initial search that they realised that they had been put there by Nick himself, and that he had picked it up from the handle of the front door. They concluded that the Skripals must have got it on their skin from the door handle as well. Tracy’s response to this information was to track Nick’s movements afterwards, and as a result she recommended the immediate closure of the local police station so it could be isolated and examined for contamination.

At that point the Government official intervened and over-ruled her, on the grounds that closing a police station would cause public panic. Parts of the building were then tested whilst normal activity was going on elsewhere, and, as Tracy predicted, traces of Novichok were found. The police station was closed and the Government adviser was sent packing.

The scriptwriters were prescient. The awkward interplay between central and local Government during the early stages of the coronavirus emergency resulted in a deadly delay to the introduction of lockdown, testing and other measures. The significance of Directors of Public Health across the country was acknowledged far too late and only after failures by the centralised approach.

Back in March Directors were pleading for access to the postcode data gleaned by NHS 111, so they could devise a targeted approached to containing the spread of the virus. Jeanelle de Gruchy, President of the Association of Directors of Public Health, wrote:

What has upset some of our members the most, despite leading so much of this work, is being left time and time again off key communications or guidance development by NHS England and some government departments. It’s not good enough – and it slows down our response at a time when we can least afford it.

According to The Guardian, Directors of Public Health were only asked to take charge of Covid-19 testing in care homes in May, long after the damage had been done. That same article quotes one senior director of public health:

We’ve been pushing and pushing government to realise that we exist and that we are best placed to organise things like testing, alongside directors of adult social services, because we know our patch.

Tracy Daszkiewicz was still in post in Wiltshire until this month, when she was promoted to the post of Deputy Director of Population Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England. We can only imagine how she must have felt throughout this bungled response by the Government to the current emergency.


Please note

We have been in full self-isolation since 16th March to protect my husband whose immune system is compromised.

If you are in self-isolation then join the Lib Dems in self-isolation Facebook group.

You can find my previous Isolation diaries here.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Stephen Scott 17th Jun '20 - 11:10pm

    Well, exactly. Distribution of power and capability works. Who’d have thought it.

  • Peter Martin 18th Jun '20 - 8:57am

    A note of caution: There’s often a fair bit of “artistic licence” involved in the telling of these kinds of stories as anyone who has personal experience of real life events being dramatised on TV will be able to confirm.

    This is not to say Tracy Daszkiewicz didn’t do an outstanding job, but it’s bit of a stretch to compare the response to a Novichok attack in Salisbury to our recent response to the Covid 19 outbreak on the basis of what we’ve seen in a one TV series. It may or may not be accurate.

  • David Garlick 18th Jun '20 - 12:45pm

    The point that this is making is surely that Local Officials have been excluded at key moments from the response to Covid19 disaster to the real detriment of peoples lives.
    Another failure that cannot and must not be forgotten.
    I think that Salisbury was well handled and praise to all that took part in doing that.

  • Nonconformistradical 18th Jun '20 - 1:26pm

    @Peter Martin
    As I understood it a considerable amount of research was carried out for this drama documentary mini-series.

    Do you have evidence for your suggestion that it might not be accurate?

    As it was, having watched all of it my view was that if competent people were allowed to get on and do their jobs properly without being micro-managed from Whitehall they could do a pretty good job.

  • Peter Martin 18th Jun '20 - 2:21pm

    @ Nonconformist Radical,

    “Do you have evidence for your suggestion that it might not be accurate”

    Perfect accuracy is just not possible. There’s a always a pressure on the script writers in these kinds of dramatisations to “improve” on the original.

    I really don’t know how accurate was the description of an incompetent government official vs a highly competent local one. Lib Dems are into decentralisation so they’d naturally like the line the program took. It’s possibly right. But, what did the supposed incompetent govt official have to say for herself? Did they actually use her real name in the program? If they didn’t that would be at least one inaccuracy. Was she ever interviewed?

    There’s always two sides to any story. Unless you hear both sides you can’t form a valid opinion. Just saying…… 🙂

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