Calm before snowstorm as Big Freeze eases

Britain will enjoy some brief respite from the worst December weather in nearly 30 years today, before temperatures plunge again for the rest of the month.

After more than a week of snow, ice and transport chaos, forecasters said the UK would start to thaw, with the mercury almost reaching double figures in parts.

But bitterly cold winds are expected to return by the start of next week as bookmakers slashed the odds for a white Christmas.

Temperatures fell as low as minus 13C (14F) across northern England overnight, and there were warnings of widespread icy roads before milder winds arrived from the west.

John Hutchinson, from MeteoGroup, the weather division of Press Association, said: "What we're going to have through the next few days is the wind moving round from the Atlantic, bringing less cold air.

"As far as (today) goes, quite a lot of England and Wales will have a pretty fine day."

He said southern areas will see temperatures between 2C (35.6F) and 4C (39.2F), while across Scotland and Northern Ireland, they will be even higher, up to 9C (48.2F).

But despite the thaw conditions, forecasters warned the Arctic conditions were expected to return next week.

John Hammond from the Met Office said: "December has got off to a very cold start. The last time we saw prolonged cold weather in December with such low temperatures and this amount of snow fall was 1981.

"Next week the north easterly winds will bring in the cold weather once more with an increasing risk of snow showers, especially in northern and eastern parts of the UK.

"It's going to stay cold for much of the rest of the month with widespread risk of ice, frost and snow showers."

Yesterday the UK remained in the grip of freezing conditions.

In Carlisle, temperatures barely moved above minus 8C (17.6F) all day, with the lowest temperature recorded at minus 7.9C (17.8F).

Most parts of the country saw the mercury reach between minus 2C (28.4F) and 2C (35.6F), while the warmest area was Cromer in Norfolk, where temperatures reached 5.8C (42.4F).

Roads in worst-hit Scotland have been getting back to normal, with the Army drafted in to help Edinburgh Council clear roads in the city.

The M8, which links Edinburgh and Glasgow, reopened yesterday after ice and snow closed it for two days, stranding hundreds of drivers.

Scottish transport minister Stewart Stevenson faced withering criticism for the SNP government's response to the arctic conditions.

Labour branded it a "first-class cock-up" while the Lib Dems suggested Mr Stevenson should personally start helping to clear the snow.

Labour's Holyrood transport spokesman, Charlie Gordon, said hundreds of people spent the night in cars and buses on motorways while "the transport minister was on the BBC claiming a first-class response and refusing to apologise".

"In fact it was a first-class cock-up and he was responsible," he added.

Mr Stevenson told MSPs: "What happened on Monday has been extremely difficult and challenging - it should not have happened, and I have apologised for the failure to communicate the position better and earlier."

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said the public should have access to grit and salt supplies to help clear roads.

He said: "In many cases people would like to have the opportunity to have access to grit and salt supplies so that on roads that are not on the council's gritting route they can... make the pavements a bit easier, make it a bit easier for them to get out of their driveways."

The minister also called on people to support their neighbours and help clear each others' driveways.

Bookies have slashed the odds of a white Christmas to 9/4 in the last 48 hours.

Alex Donohue of Ladbrokes said: "Punters who were snowed in last week brought our telephone lines and website to near meltdown with a flurry of bets for a white Christmas. Every day that the weather stays like this we cut the odds and pray."