The Big Freeze 2010: An audit

The chilling season goes on. Susie Mesure, Andrew Johnson and Emily Dugan report

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Bitter north-east winds compounded the misery for icy Britain this weekend as forecasters predicted the Arctic weather could last another 10 days, making this the coldest winter the country has endured since the notorious winter of 1962/3.

The sub-zero conditions, which have forced nearly 100 businesses to stop using gas in an effort to conserve supplies, yesterday prompted Gordon Brown to release details of his meeting with the emergency committee, Cobra. With recriminations flying about who was to blame for the chaos that descended on the country last week, the Prime Minister insisted there was no serious threat to gas supplies. "We've got plenty of gas, of course, in our own backyard – the North Sea – and we also have access to the large reserves in Norway and the Netherlands via pipelines," he said.

But Greg Clark, the Tory spokesman on Energy, said that within hours of Mr Brown's statement, the National Grid had issued its third alert that demand for gas outstripped supply. "If we had enough capacity in the system, major users would not have needed to be cut off last week," he said, adding that Britain had storage capacity for 16 days' worth of gas, compared with 100 in Germany and 120 in France.

Whitehall sources believe that this weekend Britain will mark the moment that the country became the coldest it has been for more than 40 years – the last coldest, until now, was 30 years ago. "If this weather continues we have to take some tough decisions," one Whitehall source said.

There was further turmoil on the roads yesterday, with snow blocking many, including the M20 in Kent and several A roads across the country as local authorities warned they were rationing gritting in order to slash salt use by a quarter. The City of York Council began mixing rock salt with grit sand, making it less effective. A council official warned it would be down to its last 100 tons of rock salt this week, while councils in Caerphilly, Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan said they would run out of salt by tomorrow if weekend deliveries did not arrive.

The Prime Minister said the Government was "working with the suppliers and the highway authorities... making sure stocks of salt to grit roads and pavements get to where they're most needed". This meant sharing supplies between councils, he added.

It is the second consecutive winter that salt supplies have threatened to run out. But a recent Local Government Association report revealed that few lessons – if any – had been learnt after the disasters of last winter. The report warned that the country was reliant on two suppliers – Salt Union and Cleveland Potash – who control almost 90 per cent of the market, leaving councils under immense pressure.

"The issue is not overall availability of salt but suppliers' ability to increase mining and capacity at times of increased demand," the report said.

The LGA report claimed that even last winter many authorities were unaware of the prospect of supply shortage until the orders they placed were not delivered. But although the LGA said councils would be reviewing their salt storage and procurement policies, this winter has seen a repeat of last winter's shortages.

With the country going into its seventh week of serious winter, the cost to every walk of British life, from the economy to the National Health Service, and the tourist industry to the transport sector, soared. Here is the IoS's breakdown.

Human cost

Yvonne Doyle at the Department of Health has predicted up to 40,000 excess winter deaths this year thanks to the prolonged cold spell. This would be 3,000 more than last year which also had several shorter cold snaps.

Paul Wilkinson, an environmental epidemiologist, said: "The number of deaths a day is directly related to how cold it is. For each degree colder it gets there is a corresponding 2 per cent rise in the number of deaths which occur."

Meanwhile, the direct death toll hit at least 25 as five more bodies were recovered. Two unnamed brothers died in a Leicestershire lake; Philip Hughes, from Slough, was found underneath the ice of a lake in Surrey; Mary Priestland, 90, was found frozen in her garden in South Yorkshire; and an unnamed 42-year-old woman from Newcastle was found in a wooded area.

Economic cost

While employees have enjoyed unexpected "snowlidays", business leaders have fretted about the impact on productivity. The Forum of Private Business (FPB) warned that absenteeism caused by the severe weather could cost businesses £230m a day, if they did not take steps to enable staff to work from home. And economists warned that 20 per cent of the population staying home would cost the country about £1bn, as the GDP per average working day is around £5bn.

Douglas McWilliam, who heads the Centre for Economics and Business Research, said the lost productivity could send more businesses to the wall. He warned up to 2,000 additional businesses might fail prematurely in the first quarter of 2010, adding: "There is a regional impact: many of the businesses that are close to failing are in the retail and construction sectors, and in Scotland and the North of England, which have been most affected by the snow and transport disruption."

Although economists believe much of the temporary loss in economic activity is later recovered, the insurers RSA calculated that the cost of the snow could be up to £690m a day – or £14.5bn over the Arctic snap's predicted three-week span. The company said a combination of plummeting productivity, transport problems and reduced footfall in other businesses would all push up the costs.

Transport

Transport grinding to a halt is probably the single biggest economic blow when heavy snow hits the UK. The British Chambers of Commerce estimated that the loss of work hours caused by snow disrupting transport costs Britain around £400m a day.

More than 14,000 trains were cancelled from Monday to Friday last week, forcing many commuters to stay at home. The Highways Agency said eight A roads and two sections of motorway were officially closed at some point during the last week due to the snow, while hundreds more ungritted B roads were impassable. It was travel hell at the airports with more than 1,400 flights cancelled at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted, which could cost airlines up to £70m.

Physical damage

After the cold snap last February, highways engineers reported a third more pot holes in the roads than usual, and this year is not likely to be different, leaving English and Welsh roads with at least 322,731 extra potholes to fill in at a cost of nearly £20m – or £61 a hole.

Hazardous driving conditions make for more accidents: the AA said motor insurance claims were up by one third at around 300 to 500 a day, from the average 200 to 300 a day in a normal winter. And abandoned cars are causing problems, either from break ins or prangs from other cars – or even snowploughs, according to an AA spokesman. "Other accidents include skidding into objects such as telephone boxes, telegraph poles, and barns. One man took a taxi, which skidded into his own parked car," he added.

Frozen pipes have added to the toll, with the bill for burst pipes at an estimated £75m a week. Pimlico Plumbers in London said they had responded to 2,000 emergency call outs a week, up almost a quarter on a typical winter.

Energy

Demand for gas has soared as temperatures have plummeted. Friday saw a record 463m cubic metres of gas used in the UK, costing the country an estimated £150m, according to analysts. As families leave heating on round the clock, levels of gas consumption have soared by around a third on last year. This is costing the country around £15m a day more than normal, although the estimated bill for the extra heating used in homes could exceed £31bn, leaving each household facing an average bill of £1,264 for the past six weeks, more than their average quarterly bill of £1,245 for just half the time.

In total, since the start of December, it is estimated that the average household has used around 6,493 kWh of power – more than double the 2,742kWh that might normally be expected. A staggering 162,325,000,000 kWh of gas and electricity has been used by Britons in the past six weeks.

The Government will have to shell out for some of this additional cost: it has already paid an additional £172m this winter over and above its winter fuel payments of £2.7bn. Pensioners are eligible for an extra £25 a week (on top of the £250 one-off payment they receive) if the temperature stays at 0C or below for seven consecutive days: many have already received some cash.

Salt

Although detailed road salt production and sales figures are kept secret for commercial reasons, according to the Local Government Association, the UK Roads Liaison Group, which is tasked with keeping roads open, said total UK production in a normal year was around 2,000 kilotons. The cost per ton is likely to have matched the £150 to £200 a ton it hit during last February's cold snap, which compares with normal prices of £30 to £40 per ton.

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