Here we (don't) go again: Britain freezes to a halt

Airports close as travel chaos hits millions
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The Independent Online

Britain was warned to brace for further heavy snow, travel chaos, closed schools and widespread disruption as forecasters said sub-zero temperatures would continue across most of the country.

The Transport Secretary Philip Hammond is demanding an immediate audit of the UK's preparedness for the icy blast and a report on the levels of grit after a day of gridlock on the roads, airport closures and train cancellations brought large parts of the country to a standstill.

The Met Office said milder weather was losing the battle against the cold front which had moved in from Scandinavia. Although snow would die out out towards the weekend, temperatures would continue to fall, reaching as low as -21C in the Highlands and -4C in London. "For most of the country there will be no let-up until next week. Even where there is no snow severe frosts and penetrating frost will be a constant hazard," a spokeswoman said.

Despite more Arctic storms sweeping in across the South-east from Continental Europe overnight bringing up to 30cm of fresh snow, Gatwick airport said it still hoped to resume flights today after frozen runways forced it to close all day yesterday. Edinburgh airport, which is experiencing the worst snow in 40 years, was also shut with the cancellation of 300 flights. Passengers were warned that they were likely to face further severe delays even if the airports did re-open.

In England, more than 3,000 schools were shut yesterday with many warning of similar closures today which will mean hundreds of thousands of parents will have to work from home or make alternative childcare arrangements. The Department for Education issued advice to headteachers urging them to keep schools open where it was safe to do so.

In Scotland, half of all schools remained closed leaving 250,000 children to enjoy the wintry conditions, many for the third day in a row. On the roads, police forces warned against all but essential travel in the most severely hit areas of Kent, Surrey, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Scotland as the weather deteriorated yet further, just in time for last night's rush hour.

Hundreds of motorists were left stranded in their vehicles overnight in parts of Kent and Surrey on Tuesday. On many motorways those that did brave the weather were slowed to a crawl in near white-out conditions. In Scotland the M8 between Glasgow and Edinburgh was reduced to a single lane while the Forth Bridge was closed for the first time since it was built in 1964.

Britain's rail travellers, meanwhile, endured yet another dismal day. The Association of Train Operating Companies estimated one in five services were cancelled with reduced fleets on the East Coast Main Line and delays to Eurostar, although 66 per cent of the trains that did run, were on time.

There was the inevitable criticism of the failure to prepare. It is estimated that the cost of this cold snap is running at more than £1.2bn a day in lost work days and transport delays. David Greaves director of insurance company RSA, which made the estimate, said it couldn't have come at a worse time. "Bad weather in the run-up to Christmas will have a major impact on the UK's economy and could lead to significant losses for already struggling businesses."

Paul Watters, head of roads policy for the AA, said council gritters needed to be better organised. "We have had people trapped on motorways for hours on end and that is unacceptable. In the 21st century we should not have people stuck all night," he said.

Sheffield and South Yorkshire were among the most severely hit areas. Local bus services in Sheffield, Doncaster, Barnsley and Rotherham were halted while hospitals across the county cancelled all non-urgent appointments and operations.

In Leeds many workers hurried home at lunchtime as conditions deteriorated and roads into the city became impacted with snow. In West Yorkshire a woman died after falling into a freezing lake at Pontefract racecourse.