The gritting salt used to de-ice our roads could run out within days. As forecasters predicted that further heavy snowfall would sweep Britain today, the country's biggest supplier of rock salt admitted it had a backlog of orders to replenish the dwindling stockpiles held by local authorities.
The threat of travel chaos was looming again last night as a band of wintry weather made its way from the South-west of England into Wales, the Midlands and East Anglia. Forecasters said up to 20cm of snow could fall on higher ground, in areas where highways agencies are running perilously low on de-icing materials. Some councils have rationed their remaining stocks by prioritising de-icing to A and B roads, bus routes and shopping areas. Wiltshire County Council said it had only enough salt for eight runs by its gritting fleet, while officials in Hertfordshire were looking abroad to replenish their stocks.
Salt Union, a company which supplies gritting salt to the Highways Agency and most local authorities, said it was running its vast mine at Winsford, Cheshire, 24 hours a day in order to keep up with demand. "There is a backlog of orders," said a spokesman. "Everybody is aware that local authority stocks are running low. Our operations are running at full capacity. After several mild winters, we have suddenly had a prolonged period of cold weather. We are busier than we have been in years."
More than two million tonnes of salt are spread on Britain's roads each year at a cost of £140m but this week's severe weather has generated demand for an extra 500,000 tonnes. Nearly all the salt comes from two suppliers, Salt Union and Cleveland Potash. One local authority has been told it will not receive any more salt before Friday.
Rosie Cooper, the Labour MP for West Lancashire, urged ministers to review the rules governing gritting to ensure that minor routes were covered.
The Highways Agency insisted it had enough salt to keep its 500 gritting lorries working on motorways and A roads. But away from strategic routes, there is growing evidence that councils are salting only main roads. Wiltshire County Council said it had used all but 1,000 tonnes of the 8,500 tonnes it had stockpiled for the winter. It added: "We still have supplies to salt main routes for the time being. It will depend on the weather as to how long these will last."
The Local Government Association is encouraging councils to share supplies. Paul Bettison, who chairs the LGA's environment board, said that in some regions more salt had been spread in the past four days than in the whole of last winter. "Supplies of grit have been massively depleted," he added. "This will cause some local authorities to focus solely on A and B roads and bus routes, rather than the whole network."
The result is likely to be more travel chaos for millions, but few workers are likely to try to emulate Peter Cartwright, 53. The radiographer, from Ashford in Kent, had to walk 18 miles through blizzards to reach Guy's Hospital in central London on Monday.
The father-of-four left home at 5.30am and caught an early train to Maidstone for the first leg of his 55-mile trip. He then walked about 10 miles to Borough Green, before stopping for a bacon roll at a cafe, then accepted a lift to Swanley. He walked a further five miles to Eltham before a "kind chap" gave him a ride to Rotherhithe. Mr Cartwright then walked to Bermondsey Tube station and took a train to London Bridge, eventually arriving at the hospital at 2pm.
"I didn't want to let anyone down," he said. "If I didn't make it, there would be extra work for my colleagues."
Snow winners: Who's cleaning up in the cold
The allure of a roaring log fire is proving strong. A Hertfordshire company, Logs 4 Sale, said orders rose by so much over the weekend that it cannot take any more until March.
The service gained 1,000 extra passengers on Monday after flights were cancelled at London's airports – equivalent to one-and-a-third extra Eurostar trains.
Sainsbury's reported a sharp increase in sales of soups and ingredients for warming winter dishes such as root vegetable and sausages. Fish fingers were also in higher demand than usual.
Home delivery shopping services
Online food retailer Ocado had the busiest day in its eight-year history on Tuesday. Sales rose by 25 per cent, with a 27 per cent rise in demand for hot chocolate and 60 per cent for carrots.
When all else fails, its seems snowbound Britons hail a cab. Samir Saleh, owner of Mayfair Taxis in central London, said demand was up 150 per cent on Monday and still 20 per cent higher on Tuesday. "We're hoping for more snow," he said.
Research by Sharon Thiruchelvam
School closures: Tales from the front line
The headteacher: Evelyn Chua
Headteacher Evelyn Chua defied council bosses to keep her school open this week.
"It was a difficult decision but I could see buses were running and traffic was flowing so I thought we could manage," she said.
Despite the ruling that all schools should close, Ms Chua decided at 6.15am on Tuesday to open Hampden Gurney Church of England Primary School in Westminster. The school's caretaker swept away the snow from the open areas of the grounds and prepared for the day ahead.
Ms Chua said: "We must have had around 100 calls from parents asking if we were open and when we said 'yes', you could hear the relief on the other end of the telephone. Most of the pupils live nearby, which helped. Our staff live as far away as Enfield (about 15 miles) and the District and Circle Tube line wasn't running – but by a mixture of buses and walking they all made it in."
Only four schools in Westminster defied the council's closure call on a day when about 10,000 schools nationwide were closed.
Ms Chua said that it was "quite a normal day", there were no accidents and parents and pupils were delighted. The 240-pupil school has an advantage in that most of its play areas arecovered and were protected from the snow.
"I have to praise the staff – many of whom came in from quite a long way away," said the headteacher yesterday.
The parent: Laura Warren
Laura Warren admits to being baffled.
She and scores of other mothers managed to drive their children to the Bluewater shopping centre 15 miles away for a day of shopping and playing. Yet the school her 11-year-old daughter Amelia attends, Maplesden Noakes, was closed for the day even though it is only a mile from their home.
"I think it was really a knee-jerk reaction to close the school," she said. "OK, they were told that the weather was going to be bad but – in the end – it did not snow as much on Monday night as they thought it was going to. I can't see why they couldn't have opened it." The school was closed for two days and Laura negotiated with her employers that she could have annual leave for the time Amelia had to be off.
"I didn't have anyone else that I could call upon," she said. "Normally, the only kids who would be at the Bluewater shopping centre would have been playing truant. I think schools should remain open if they can."Reuse content