Arctic freeze plunges country into chaos: More snow on the way, but 'big thaw' is close behind, reports Marianne Macdonald

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YESTERDAY'S arctic conditions caused a death and scores of collisions on the roads and buried the country under snow. More snow was due to fall overnight but expected to turn into sleet and rain this morning. Weather forecasters said 'slightly less cold air' from the South-west would push its way across the country to reach Scotland by evening.

Up to an inch of snow fell and an easterly wind accompanying sub- zero temperatures contributed a biting wind-chill factor; recorded levels of -5C in Manston, Kent, Herstmonceux, East Sussex, and Exeter, Devon, felt like -14C.

Lethal road conditions claimed their first fatality in Chepstow, Gwent, where one person died and several were injured when a car and a minibus carrying Army cadets collided on the A48 at Penhow.

A five-year-old boy suffered serious head injuries after his bike and a car collided in Buckinghamshire. A motorist in his thirties suffered multiple fractures after his glass-fibre TVR sports car was torn in half after hitting a crash barrier on the A40 at Denham.

The weather hampered the search for a woman who went missing while climbing in the Cairngorms on Sunday. An RAF helicopter and mountain rescue teams were due to resume their search at first light today for Jacqueline Greaves, 53, of Lowton, near Leigh, Lancashire. She was separated from her companions David Cawley, 29, and Bruce Nutter, 49, both from Greater Manchester, when the men fell through a snow overhang on the 3,500ft Derry Cairngorm.

Insp David Cormack of Grampian Police described conditions on the mountain as 'horrendous'. Gale-force winds of up to 60mph, blizzards and arctic cold with a wind-chill factor of -26C lowered her chances of survival, but police remained 'optimistic'.

Hopes were fading for another missing sportsman, Paul Gilbert, 23, who was presumed drowned after his two-man kayak capsized at a weir at Eton, Berkshire, on Sunday. Mr Gilbert, of Wimbledon, south- west London, was practising on the river Thames for an endurance race. Police said he was the only member of the four-man party not wearing a life-jacket.

Emergency services throughout Britain were inundated with calls as pedestrians slipped on ice and motorists lost control. The RAC had more than three times the normal number of appeals for assistance, while the London Ambulance Service said it was under 'extreme pressure'.

There were calls for cold-weather payments to be activated at once for pensioners, who usually have to wait for local temperatures to drop to zero or below for seven successive days before receiving help. Robert Cryer, the Labour MP for Bradford South, demanded immediate pay- outs. Welfare agencies, including Age Concern, urged people to check on elderly neighbours.

Lovers were disappointed as Valentine's day bouquets were delayed. Interflora, attempting to deal with more than 500,000 orders, had delivery problems in Kent, Bristol and central London.

In Horsham, West Sussex, Nicholas Forbes, lost his prized record collection of 3,000 discs when his car plunged into the river North en route to a Brighton record fair.

Short-haul flights from Heathrow were cancelled yesterday morning due to de-icing difficulties and British Rail reported problems with frozen brakes on trains. Boats on Poole Harbour, Dorset, were immobilised after ice sealed them in their berths.

On the roads, snowfalls coincided with the morning rush hour, causing dozens of accidents as motorists took to the roads despite police advice. Worst affected were the Thames Valley, Essex, Kent, Hertfordshire, Sussex and Hampshire.

The M25 around Heathrow was described by the RAC as a 'skating rink'. The M4/M5 interchange at Almondsbury in Avon was said to be an 'ice trap' and the M1 in Bedfordshire 'a driver's nightmare'. In the Isle of Wight most minor roads were impassable. The A3 at Hindhead in Surrey was closed in both directions after a multi-vehicle pile- up in blizzard conditions.

Traffic was slowed on the A27 at Portslade, East Sussex, where three buses were stranded on a hill. The the Uckfield by-pass in East Sussex was closed during the morning rush-hour, and in Wiltshire, a serious accident blocked the A36 near Salisbury.

In Scotland, black ice caused problems throughout Lothian and traffic was diverted at Milton Bridge near Edinburgh.

The London Weather Centre said yesterday that the cold was not unusual for the time of year - but predicted that the big chill would not last long and although more snow was on the way, the thaw could start today.

(Photograph omitted)