As householders in the north of Scotland spent their third night without power, electricity bosses rejected criticism yesterday that they had failed to deploy enough staff to cope with the chaos caused by the Christmas blizzards. A state of emergency was declared in the Shetlands after the worst storms in living memory.
It had been claimed that Hydro-Electric's skeleton staff, on standby over the holiday period, had been too small to react quickly to the blizzards sweeping the country since Christmas Eve.
Thousands of homes were still without power yesterday as weathermen in the north of Scotland warned that tem- peratures could drop to minus 20C. Hundreds of engineers battled to restore power to 5,000 families, many of whom spent a second night without electricity. Shetland was the worst hit with nearly 3,100 customers without power, some of them cut off for 72 hours after power cables snapped.
Shetland islanders said they had not seen such severe snowfalls for 50 years. A spokesman for the Shetland coastguard said: "Houses are being swamped by drifts of more than 10ft on some of the islands. We have been running our helicopter almost all day on medical emergencies, getting to people with heart conditions stranded by the weather."
Nicola Blance, who lives in Lerwick, said: "We can just get out of our front door but we can't get out of the back. There is snow everywhere. The whole town has been trying to help people who have got stuck."
Among those worst affected by the weather were 24 oil workers trapped in the Sullom Voe coastal oil terminal since Saturday night. Fresh shift workers have been unable to get through the snowdrifts. Managers at the BP-run terminal were last night planning to ferry in crews by boat as roads were still blocked.
The Labour group on the islands' council said the privatised Hydro- Electric was badly prepared for winter emergencies and that staff cuts and increased profits were to blame.
"The profit motive has affected the way the company used to operate in the best interests of their customers," said Roddy Murray, a Labour councillor, yesterday. "Clearly the company no longer has the resources to cope with emergencies."
The group will ask the local MP, Calum Macdonald, to demand an inquiry into the long, cold weekend.
A spokeswoman for Hydro-Electric in Perth said the company linesmen were battling against the extreme conditions and were holding emergency meetings every few hours. She said staff on holiday were taking part in the operation to restore electricity to homes.
But the spokeswoman added that the severe weather had prevented linesmen reaching faults in many areas. "We would strongly refute any suggestion that our workforce was not strong enough to cope - it was simply down to the weather," she said.
"In some areas we are having to call on contractors and excavation firms to open roads and allow our men access to power lines. We were prepared for snow over Christmas but the severity has caused serious problems for everyone."
In other parts of the country a man died after a minibus in which he was travelling skidded on ice and overturned on the M61 at Bolton, Greater Manchester. His wife suffered serious injuries.
Transport was thrown into chaos as fresh overnight snow blocked many roads around Grampian and the Highlands, with police warning drivers not to drive unless it was absolutely necessary.
Drivers were also warned not to attempt to travel on the A1 between Berwick- upon-Tweed and Morpeth in Northumberland because of blizzards. Visibility was down to 100 metres at one stage.
A spokesman for Northumbria police said: "All the roads around Berwick are dangerous - you are putting your life at risk if you travel on them. The snowploughs have been out for hours but they are losing."
Snow also blanketed the North Yorkshire coast, mainly around the Whitby and Scarborough areas. A Leeds Weather Centre spokesman said snow showers, which are also affecting Lincolnshire and Hum-berside, would continue today.
Road conditions were deteriorating rapidly in mid and west Wales last night as temperatures plummeted well below freezing. By 10pm last night, snow showers had spread south across East Anglia and London and into Kent, Surrey and Sussex, an area which had until then avoided the bad conditions.
Weather forecast, page 2