Are we heading for a new winter of discontent?

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The Independent Online

Prolonged sub-zero temperatures after nearly a decade of mild winters could result in the death of tens of thousands of people, with fears that the National Health Service faces the prospect of a full-blown winter bed shortage for the first time since Labour came to power in 1997.

The Confederation of British Industry warned that power shortfalls caused by the rising domestic demand to keep warm and Britain's dwindling strategic stockpiles could lead to factory shutdowns and a return to the three-day week. At present, only 11 days' supply of gas is being held in reserve, compared with 55 days' worth elsewhere in Europe. Consumer groups fear that hardest hit will be members of the two million poor households already struggling to cope with the 40 per cent rise in energy prices since 2003.

Transport specialists also warn that the authorities have not acted fast enough to keep motorways and other routes open in the event of heavy snowfalls. The situation would be worse in Scotland.

Concern has been mounting since the Meteorological Office took the unprecedented step of issuing a long-range forecast predicting the likelihood of a much harsher-than-average winter. The "amber alert" was based on lower-than-average sea temperatures recorded near Iceland and off the Azores this spring. The findings are a typical precursor for a phenomenon known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) which has resulted in some of the harshest winters on record. The effects of the NAO were felt most spectacularly in 1963, when temperatures dropped as low as minus 22C, the Thames iced over and large swaths of southern England were blanketed more than a foot of snow for weeks on end.

Forecasters say they are 67 per cent confident that this winter will be among the coldest on record, and are urgently working on models predicting exactly how cold it will be and for how long Britain will freeze. A spokesman said the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott,had been informed immediately, as had the NHS, the Highways Agency and other relevant departments. "We told them to go back and look at their plans. We have had nearly 10 years of warm winters and society has changed in that time," the Met Office spokesman said.

The Arctic temperatures could not come at a worse time for Britain's energy consumers. All six power companies have relentlessly increased prices in the past two years in the midst of worsening volatility in the global energy markets. Average customers can now expect to pay £750 a year on fuel costs. Already two million households are spending 10 per cent of their income on gas and electricity bills. Three-quarters of these are classified as vulnerable - among them the elderly, sick or very poor. "When it is really cold at a time when prices have already gone up dramatically, will people make the decision to keep warm? We pray to God that they do," said Adam Scorer, head of campaigns at Energywatch.

An extra 8,000 deaths are anticipated for every one degree centigrade that the temperature falls below the winter average. When home temperatures drop below 16C, resistance to respiratory diseases falls. Cold air temperatures lead to a rapid rise in the number of strokes and heart attacks.

A DoH spokeswoman said plans were being made to clear beds and cancel operations should the worst-case scenario unfold. A spokesman for the department said: "We are aware of the Met Office's severe weather forecast for this winter but we always prepare for the worst anyway." Concerns are growing that the Government has seriously underestimated the impact of an exceptionally cold winter on business. Sir Digby Jones, the director general of the CBI, said this week that "businesses will shut down" and that the biggest energy users will be forced to "throw the switch".

Demand peaked in the relatively mild January of 2003, when 449 million cubic metres (mcm) of gas were used. This year, total availability will be lower than in previous years at 476mcm - allowing a margin of error of just 6 per cent. Lord Woolmer of Leeds, chairman of the House of Lords European Union Committee, warned that the situation had deteriorated since he submitted a report on the supply situation last year.

North Sea supplies have been run down faster than envisaged over the summer to exploit high prices on the Continent. Meanwhile the European energy market, from which Britain must now import much of its supplies, remains unreformed, and serious doubts have been expressed that it can meet the extra demand.

The severe hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico means that production of liquefied natural gas (LNG) has been badly disrupted. Consignments destined for Britain have been diverted to the United States. Big industrial energy users, such as steel and chemical companies, may have tohalt production on very cold days to allow domestic suppliers to take precedence. "The Government said that voluntary agreements will be sufficient. But the real danger is that they may not be enough," Sir Digby said.

The Energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, dismissed the talk of a three-day week as "scaremongering". A Department of Trade and Industry spokesman said: "The market is likely to correct itself in the event of any shortfall of supplies. A mechanism is in place to restrict supplies to some parts of industry should the situation require it."

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