Government accused of glacial response as UK counts cost of big freeze

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Mounting anger over Britain's failure to cope with days of persistent snowfall boiled over yesterday as millions of workers once again stayed at home, costing the economy billions, while stranded rail travellers slept in train carriages, thousands of schools stayed shut and fears grew over fuel supplies.

With temperatures expected to hit record lows of -10C in some cities and -20C in the Scottish Highlands, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond promised to convene the emergency Cobra committee normally, deployed in times of national crisis, if necessary.

Gatwick airport remained shut for a second day after a further 15cm of snow fell in Sussex and Kent. Runways at Edinburgh, City and Southampton were also closed for much of the day.

Robin Hood airport in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, where some of the heaviest snow seen for 100 years has fallen, will be shut until at least midday.

But the plight of grounded air travellers was small beer compared to that of the 100 passengers forced to spend Wednesday night in a stationary train at Three Bridges in West Sussex.

Motorists on the A57 endured a second night bedding down in their vehicles or in a Methodist chapel, after yet more heavy snow in the eastern Pennines left major routes impassable. Although bookmakers were cheerfully slashing the odds on the prospect of a white Christmas, Mr Hammond was urged by the opposition to "get a grip" on his handling of the situation.

In a series of angry exchanges in the Commons, he was accused by Labour's Angela Eagle of "demonstrating a breathtaking degree of complacency" over the situation, which according to some estimates is costing the economy £1.2bn a day. Mr Hammond insisted that everything possible was being done and that grit supplies remained healthy. But while he said he sympathised with stranded commuters, he added: "The question is not whether a foot of snow and double digit negative temperatures create disruption – they will create disruption – the question is whether we should or could have done anything differently."

Much of Britain's education system remained frozen as the Department for Education estimated that 7,000 schools across the UK, including 1,000 in Yorkshire, were shut yesterday – which is more than twice as many as on Wednesday.

On the rail network, nearly one in three trains was cancelled with the majority of those in service experiencing delays. The Association of Train Operating Companies said the problems were caused by the build up of snow and ice on electric conductor rails. Britain was not unique in struggling to cope with the arctic weather.

France's SNCF state rail company cancelled 20 per cent of its trains between Paris and the south-east. In Germany there were delays at Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin airports, while motorists were stranded overnight for several hours on one motorway in the western state of Hesse.

Geneva's Cointrin airport reopened yesterday after being closed for 36 hours by snow. In the UK forecasters said the main problem for the days ahead would be the sub-zero temperatures and ice rather than snow. Met Office chief forecaster Frank Saunders said: "The quieter conditions will come at the expense of some very low overnight temperatures. Even major cities such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham could see minus 10C or below."

Even those able to drive on ungritted roads faced a new threat to their mobility, as the Retail Motor Industry (RMI) Independent Petrol Retailers Association warned that fuel shortages in some areas had become critical.

Forecourts, mainly in rural areas of the North East and eastern Scotland, were already running out of supplies.

A spokesman said road tankers had been unable to leave the main terminals from two refineries in south Humberside, while there were similar problems at Grangemouth, near Falkirk and at Coryton on the Thames in Essex.

RMI chairman Brian Madderson said: "We are close to a critical point in what is fast becoming a fuel crisis as well as a weather crisis."

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