Rationing imposed on UK's dwindling supply of grit

Temperature drops as low as -2C, and even colder weather is forecast for weekend in Britain's worst winter for three decades
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The Independent Online

Bitter winds and fresh snowfalls were forecast to bring further disruption to Britain during the weekend, as temperatures fell to their lowest level of the winter so far.

People venturing outdoors over the weekend have been told to be aware of the twin dangers of snowdrifts and an increased wind chill factor, as roads and pavements remain icy and supplies of grit are dwindling.

Yesterday, a temperature of minus 22.3C (minus 8.1F) was recorded in the village of Altnaharra in the Scottish Highlands, making it officially the coldest day of a winter which is already the most severe in three decades. Today and tomorrow are set to be even colder, with no let-up expected for at least another week. Up to 20cm of snow is forecast for parts of South Yorkshire and south of London.

Concerns over grit reserves were confirmed when the Highways Agency said it was stopping the salting of motorway hard shoulders to ensure that supplies did not run out entirely. A spokesman said only main carriageways would be treated.

Lord Adonis, the Transport Secretary, said local authorities had agreed to cut their use of salt by a quarter. He told ministers at a cabinet meeting that Britain's transport infrastructure was "as good as it could be at this stage" and that the motorways, rail services and airports were all in a "reasonably good" state given the conditions.

Gordon Brown played down fears of faltering gas and grit supplies as he met elderly users of a day centre in south London. "We are lucky enough to have North Sea gas and are in a position to ensure security of supply. Equally, at the same time we have supplies of grit," he said.

But across the country, the effects of the prolonged cold spell continued to take their toll.

Two brothers died after falling through ice on a lake in Leicestershire. Four men, all brothers, were rescued from the lake at Watermead Country Park, and taken to Leicester Royal Infirmary, where the two died. A third brother was in a critical condition and the fourth was receiving treatment. Eyewitnesses said they appeared to be scattering ashes when the ice broke, and that they had been pulled to safety by members of the public using ropes.

A man in his twenties was airlifted to hospital after suffering serious head injuries in a sledging accident in Kent. His condition was not life-threatening.

Almost 100 businesses were forced to stop using gas by the National Grid in order to conserve supplies. In Reading, Berkshire, a burst water main left up to 4,000 homes without water for several hours.

Rail and air travel were plagued by delays once more, with easyJet cancelling 30 flights at airports including Gatwick, Liverpool, Belfast and Stansted.

Rail passengers travelling through Birmingham were delayed for up to two hours due to signalling problems, with train companies up and down the country operating revised timetables.

On the roads, the RAC had attended 5,000 call-outs by midday, and was receiving around 1,500 calls an hour – more than twice as many as normal. A number of accidents involving lorries on the A1 prompted police to warn people against using the route altogether.

Durham Police Acting Superintendent Andy Huddleston said: "Even though the gritting lorries have been out, the temperature is around minus 8C, which means the grit is not having the desired effect. The conditions are absolutely treacherous and we would strongly advise anyone thinking of using the A1 to just avoid it."

Schools up and down the country remained closed, to the joy of thousands of pupils who have been handed an extended Christmas break. However, those preparing to sit their A-levels next week have started to become apprehensive. Exam boards have said that if schools are closed, pupils should take their exams this summer instead.

Hoping to avoid this scenario, pupils at Brighton College have decided to stage a sleep-over on the school's premises this weekend to ensure they can safely sit their exams on Monday. The school has brought in mattresses and sleeping bags to allow day pupils who live in outlying villages to spend the night.

Farmers have become increasingly concerned about the welfare of their animals. Malcolm Corbett, vice-chairman of the NFU national livestock board, said yesterday that sheep might have lost their inbred knowledge of how to cope with periods of prolonged snow after a succession of mild winters.

In the past, flocks were gathered in open circular shelters called "stells" where fodder had been left for them – a practice which has now died out.

The weekend's sporting fixtures have also been disrupted. Today's Premier League football matches at Fulham, Burnley and Sunderland have all been cancelled, and tomorrow's match between Liverpool and Tottenham has also been postponed. Race meetings across the country have been called off and rugby union matches are also affected.

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