Bleak New Year as ice and snow unite Europe

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New Year revellers face the prospect of sub-zero temperatures and snow on their boots as eastern and southern England shiver on the edge of a Europe-wide cold snap which has killed up to 140 people. In Italy, the Venice lagoon has frozen over and in Russia up to 300 people remain trapped in a tunnel after avalanches.

Snow swept into eastern Kent early yesterday, causing chaos on roads in the Folkestone and Dover area. But it was late in the day before police "stay-at- home" warnings sounded credible to motorists elsewhere as snow swept in along the east coast. Forecasters said that much of the country would be covered by between one and two inches of snow today, although Wales, some of the West Country and northern Scotland should escape. Late last night heavy snow was falling in Kent, East Anglia, the Pennines and Sussex - with up to four inches settling on the South Downs.

The London Weather Centre expects temperatures to fall as low as -7C tonight - one of the coldest New Year's Eves for 20 years - over much of England and barely rise to freezing on New Year's Day. With clear skies, it will be even colder in Scotland. But it is the Home Counties, rather than the Highland ski resorts, that are in line for most of the snow.

A weather-centre spokesman said that the low temperatures were caused by an area of high pressure south-east of Iceland dragging cold air across the Continent from the east.

The charity Crisis said it would keep open one of its Christmas shelters in London in response to the severe weather. The shelter, in Hackney, east London, will house at least 30 people. Regional shelters will also stay open.

The freezing temperatures brought predictable complaints about the inadequacies of the Department of Social Security's cold-weather payments scheme. A group of Labour MPs is due to protest to John Major today about the "failure" of the system to help the poorest pensioners.

Payments are triggered when the average temperature has been at freezing or below for seven consecutive days, or when weather stations predict such temperatures. Since Christmas, 18 areas have met the criteria, triggering payments totalling pounds 6.4m to nearly 700,000 people.

Elsewhere in Europe, avalanches have left up to 300 people and their vehicles trapped for days in a tunnel in Russia's Caucasus mountains. Two women had given birth while in the tunnel and one new-born baby had died of the cold.

In Romania, according to official sources, 20 people froze to death in blizzards. Unofficial reports said 24 had died in Bucharest alone. In Russia 245 people have been admitted to hospital with frostbite and 10 have died. In Poland, Warsaw has recorded near-record low temperatures of -21C. Flights had to be cancelled from Frankfurt because of snow, and ice brought shipping to a halt on the Elbe and the Danube.

Alcohol played a part in many of the tragedies, particularly for down- and-outs. But a drunken teenage couple in Austria had better luck. They were found comatose in the snow behind a snack stall at a ski race at Semmering where the temperature was -22C.