First grit, then gas – now it's vegetables in short supply

Death toll rises to 29 as students worry that exams will be cancelled
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The Independent Online

Eight more consecutive nights of below-freezing temperatures are expected to exhaust council grit supplies and leave roads icy for days. The Met Office has downgraded predictions of a fresh heavy snowfall – there will be up to 15cm (6in) of snow, mostly on the highest ground – but many roads will remain treacherous for those trying to return to work today.

The UK's biggest salt mine expects its reserves to be used up by today and on Tuesday ministers will ask councils to reduce gritting further to preserve stocks. Local authorities had already agreed to reduce their use of grit by a quarter. The Highways Agency has stopped treating motorway hard shoulders and the emergency salt supplies it ordered from abroad will not arrive before the end of the month. Several councils claimed that members of the public in vans and estate cars have been emptying grit bins for personal use within minutes of them being filled.

There are less pressing shortages of potatoes, sprouts and cabbages, because farmers are struggling to harvest their vegetables. "This reduces the amount available to stores and pushes up prices," said Stephen Alambritis, chief spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses, which has 215,000 members. "Our members have had a run on vegetables and food, which they were pleased about because it brought them in some money, but the replacements have been thin on the ground." He added: "Even the supermarkets may have to push up prices if this goes on until February."

The death toll from the prolonged freeze rose to at least 29 yesterday. Police in South Yorkshire said that a 90-year-old woman had frozen to death in her garden near Barnsley, and a dogwalker died in the North-east yesterday after falling through ice on the River Tees. The man, who was in his 50s, crashed into the water while attempting to rescue his two animals. Efforts to resuscitate him failed and he died later in hospital. Neither dog has been seen since.

Many more accidents on the ice are expected as temperatures become milder. Children and adults have continued to ignore safety advice not to walk on frozen lakes and rivers. Temperatures rose above freezing in some areas, giving a little respite from the lengthy cold spell.

The Met Office yesterday issued a severe weather warning for Wales and the South-west, which are expected to see 5cm to 10cm of snow between tomorrow afternoon and Wednesday morning, with some areas experiencing up to 20cm. "The strengthening south-easterly wind is also likely to lead to drifting of snow," the warning read. "This could cause disruption to travel networks and lead to problems with power lines."

Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Schools, urged headteachers to allow their GCSE and A-level students to sit their exams this week. Hundreds of schools are expected to remain closed despite the scheduled examinations, meaning that hundreds of thousands of students could be disadvantaged, missing a chance to sit their papers or having to postpone doing so until the summer, when they will have other exams to sit.

"It is vital that schools do everything they possibly can to stay open so that valuable lessons are not missed, exams disrupted or life made very difficult for working parents," said Mr Balls. "It is important that they [headteachers] take a balanced judgement and do not overstate the risks of playground slips or reduced supervision. This week will see thousands of pupils taking A-level and GCSE exams. These are important exams for young people and schools should stay open wherever possible to minimise disruption."

The National Grid lifted its latest gas alert after more fuel arrived. The alert, which was put in place on Saturday evening, was the third to be issued in a week, amid fears of a shortage.

Three-day forecast

TODAY: Cold and cloudy, with sunny spells in some regions. Snow and rain across southernScotland, northern England and Northern Ireland. Max Day Temperature: +5C Min Night Temperature: -6C

TOMORROW: Cold and windy in most areas, with outbreaks of snow in Wales and the South-west.Showers in northern areas. Max Day Temperature: +4C Min Night Temperature: -4C

WEDNESDAY: Cloudy with outbreaks of rain in southwestern parts of England and Wales. Largely dry elsewhere. Max Day Temperature: +12C Min Night Temperature: -5C

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