Chaos already – and now the cold will really bite

Hundreds of schools shut across the country yesterday, as thick snow continued to fall and temperatures plummeted to well below freezing. Thousands of homes were without power and roads and airports were closed, causing travel chaos. Forecasters were warning that temperatures could plunge even lower last night, to -20C, as snow was expected to hit London and the Home Counties .

Scotland, Northern Ireland, the North-east of England and Cornwall were the worst affected. Around 3,000 homes in Scotland were left with no electricity, while thunderstorms also caused power cuts in Cornwall. The severe weather is expected to continue until next week.

Durham Tees Valley and Edinburgh airports were forced to close, although Edinburgh later partially reopened to allow flights to land. A spokesman for the airport said he was "hopeful" the airport could fully reopen later tonight.

In Tayside and Perth, 3,000 homes were without power, though Scottish and Southern Energy said power would be restored to "the vast majority" by midnight last night.

Police have advised drivers not to travel unless absolutely necessary; hundreds of motorists were trapped in their cars in Scotland on Sunday night after several lorries jack-knifed on the A9 between Dunblane and Perth, causing miles of tailbacks. More than 600 people were offered emergency accommodation in a Perth sports hall after being stranded in heavy snow on the A9, one of the busiest roads in Scotland.

Warnings over icy roads have been issued across Wales, Scotland and parts of England. One driver was fighting for his life in hospital after he was hit by an out-of-control car in snowy conditions on the M1. The 40-year-old man from Wallsend, North Tyneside, was injured in a multiple vehicle pile-up near Sheffield at 8am yesterday.

Councils have increased stockpiles of salt and grit but in Aberdeenshire, one of the worst-affected areas, supplies have been rationed.

The council said it had used 12,000 tons of salt so far this year, compared with 3,500 tons during the same period in 2009, but it expected fresh supplies to arrive later this week.

More than 450 schools are closed in England, with Tyne and Wear, Northumberland, County Durham, Cumbria, East Yorkshire and Shropshire particularly affected.

In Scotland, more than 800 schools are closed, from Shetland down to Edinburgh and the Lothians. About 93 schools across Northern Ireland are closed because of the bad weather, while 10 schools are closed in Wales. Rubbish collections were suspended in North Tyneside to allow refuse-collection vehicle drivers and crews to help grit roads.

It is the earliest widespread snowfall in the UK since 1993. With the Greater London area and Kent at risk of snowfall last night, the Met Office warned that drifting snow could cause disruption to road and rail networks towards the end of the week.

David Sparks, of the Local Government Association, said councils were prepared to cope with the winter weather. He said: "Local authorities this year have made unprecedented preparations for the winter."

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