Stores will open until midnight in effort to beat profits white-out

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Fresh Arctic blast causes mayhem on Britain's biggest retail day of the year

What would have been one of the most spectacularly white Christmases on record came a week too early yesterday. Heavy snowfalls across much of the country caused major problems for air travel, roads, railways, high streets, farms and, with a boom in burst pipes and rising fuel prices, even the home.

It was to be the weekend when a few began their holiday getaway, the many caught up with their backlog of present-buying, and stores held their breath for takings which could make or break their year's trading. But Heathrow and Gatwick led the airport closures; the AA reported car breakdowns peaking at 1,200 an hour, with 22,000 expected by the day's end, more than twice the normal Saturday total; four Premier League football matches were called off; and Thames Water reported a four-fold increase in burst pipes. As up to six inches of snow fell in parts of the South-east, and temperatures were expected to fall to -20C in parts of Scotland, the ritual warnings to drivers not to travel unless their journey was the proverbial necessity were issued.

Among those thinking they could defy the elements was the Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, forced to abandon his car in Oxfordshire and accept a lift from passers-by.

As if anyone needed telling, the month was on track to be the coldest December since complete countrywide records started being kept in 1910. Severe weather warnings of heavy snow and icy roads are in place in London and the South-east, the South-west, the Midlands, the North-west and Yorkshire and Humber, Wales, northern Scotland and Northern Ireland. More heavy snow showers are expected, with up to 20cm of fresh snow a possibility in some places by tonight. Here is a round-up of developments in the major areas of concern.



Transport

Passengers arriving at Gatwick, Heathrow and Birmingham airports were faced with delays and cancellations, with planes grounded for much of the day. It was only thanks to the efforts of a 140-strong team deploying 35 snowploughs and tractors that Gatwick was able to reopen for some sort of business at 2.45 yesterday afternoon. Earlier, Caspar Mahoney, an easyJet passenger, said he and 100 others had been stuck on a plane bound for Pisa, Italy, for seven hours on the runway at Gatwick because of ice. Exeter, London City, Aberdeen, Cardiff, Belfast City and Southampton airports were also disrupted. Last night, Heathrow remained closed and will remain so until at least today. Food and blankets were being brought in for stranded passengers.

On the roads, the conditions left five dead, while hundreds of motorists were stranded on the M6 in Greater Manchester as 25cm of snow fell across the North West. Much of the rail network was also affected. First Capital Connect, Southern, Southeastern, south London's Tramlink and South West Trains ran altered or reduced schedules. And, in Oxford, an appeal was made on Twitter to find "anyone with a 4x4 willing to make a bride-to-be's day and help her make her wedding on time".

Shopping

This weekend is the most crucial for retailers – the busiest in the run-up to Christmas, with 10 million people predicted to try to make it to the shops. To lure them in, retailers were slashing prices, with discounts of 75 per cent in some stores.

Many shopping centres have been opening until midnight during the past week and will again in the coming week to ensure that every last shopper has an opportunity to spend. Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield has been opening until midnight and will again this week. Last Wednesday, there were 12,000 people still shopping at 10pm in Meadowhall. The giant Metrocentre in Gateshead has been extending its opening hours by an hour at each end of the day, opening from 9am until 11pm to make sure shoppers have as long as possible to get through the door.

Shoppers who did make it to the Bluewater centre could shop in relative calm yesterday, as fewer people managed to get to the Kent mega- mall. Andrew Parkinson, Bluewater's general manager, said: "Footfall has been affected compared to the same time last year due to uncertainty regarding the weather." However, the centre will be open from 9am until 11pm between 20 and 23 December. Bluewater is expecting 700,000 people through its doors over these days to make up for lost sales this weekend. North London's Brent Cross closed mid-afternoon yesterday, but expects to be open today.

Cardiff and many parts of Wales have been badly hit this weekend, forcing retailers to close early. John Lewis said the weather has impacted on sales, and the company has also suspended its next-day and named-day delivery services. But is still delivering to customers' homes before Christmas for all orders placed by 21 December at 3pm. But it warned that if the weather worsens, this date may move. M&S has also brought forward its last Christmas order day by 24 hours – to today at 5pm.



Fuel

David Cameron was accused last night of standing "idly by" as millions of people are hit by soaring energy bills at the same time as freezing temperatures sweep across Britain.

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, called on the Government to use powers he introduced as energy secretary to compel power companies to protect those at risk of fuel poverty.

British Gas, which has more than 15 million customers in the UK, has increased its gas and electricity prices by 7 per cent this year, while Scottish and Southern Energy has raised gas prices by 9.4 per cent. Its profits are also soaring. British Gas's first-half profits for 2010 showed a 98 per cent increase from £295m to £585m.

Mr Miliband said: "The timing of these price rises always looked worrying, but now with the cold weather this Christmas, they are starting to look downright irresponsible. Frankly, I know a lot of people are shocked that the Government is so passive, just standing idly by and watching it happen."

Labour believes the coalition has failed to make use of the sanctions available, or even use the threat of triggering a consultation to "send a clear message" to the firms.

However Greg Barker, the Energy and Climate minister, hit back at the Labour leader's "disgraceful" record. "Ed Miliband had his chance in government to act on fuel poverty and catastrophically failed Britain's poorest households. Under the last five years of Labour, the number of fuel poor shot through the roof from two million to 4.5 million."

On Wednesday the coalition will launch the Energy Bill, which it claims will kick-start Europe's biggest ever programme to improve the fuel efficiency of the coldest homes. "Not only have we protected the winter fuel allowance and cold weather payments, but we have made Labour's voluntary agreement with energy companies mandatory so they're obliged to help their poorest customers."

However, Consumer Focus said: "Consumers could be facing a perfect storm of rising gas and electricity prices, money for energy efficiency schemes being frozen, heating oil price spikes and prolonged cold spells, as well as worries over the Bill for green energy and securing energy supplies over the next 10 years."

The energy watchdog Ofgem is investigating the widening profit margins of the big firms, but is not due to report until the spring. It was announced last week that the Warm Front Fund, which helps people with heating and insulation, will not take on any more cases until next April.

Saturn Energy anticipates that the cost of gas and electricity to consumers will rise by 25 per cent, pushing another one million households into fuel poverty. Some 4.5 million households currently live in fuel poverty, according to the latest government figures, of which 3.5 million are estimated to be pensioners. A home is said to be in fuel poverty if it spends more than a 10th of its monthly income on basic heating. Job losses caused by the economic crisis can only increase the numbers.

The average price for heating oil has rocketed by 40 per cent in the past month. Energyhelpline, a price comparison site, calculated that the average household will see its December gas bill jump by 47 per cent from £108 to £159 if the cold weather continues to the end of the year, as consumers use more gas to keep their homes warm.



Health

Hospitals in some of the worst snowbound areas issued an appeal yesterday to NHS staff. University Hospital of Wales (University Hospital Llandough) said: "We are urging all clinical and support staff who live within reach of the hospital and who are able to get in, particularly on foot, to contact their wards, or if their departments are closed, the hospital or the Patient Access Team to see if they can help out." Staff at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, Llantrisant, and Prince Charles Hospital, Merthyr, were also asked to get in touch.

Elsewhere, an urgent appeal has been made for blood donors – particularly people who are O negative – as stocks run low. As far as flu goes, the proportion of over-65s vaccinated so far this year is 2 per cent down on last year. Figures out on Thursday revealed 17 people have died from flu so far this winter, 14 deaths from swine flu and three from flu type B.

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