Met Office issues snow warning as temperature plummets

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The Independent Online

Snow began to spread across Britain yesterday as plummeting temperatures heralded the first severe weather of winter.

By early evening snow was falling in Inverness, Aviemore, Caithness, Ross and Cromarty in the north of Scotland. It is expected to sweep south across much of the country over the next two days.

Drivers across the country were advised to prepare for treacherous conditions and not to venture out unless necessary as the Met Office issued a severe weather warning of heavy snow and blizzards.

By this morning forecasters said they expected the snow to have reached Northern Ireland, west Wales and south-west England, with up to 15cm falling in some areas, especially on high ground.

"Showers will fall widely as snow with local blizzard conditions, especially over high ground," said a spokesman for the Met Office. "Exposed coastal zones are expected to keep a mix of rain, sleet or hail leading to icy conditions."

Although temperatures were not expected to fall dramatically, experts warned that the wind-chill factor would make it feel much colder and urged people to keep an eye on elderly neighbours. There are already fears that a rapid surge in demand for gas could cause a shortage.

The governor of the Bank of England told MPs yesterday that any gas shortage in the event of a very cold winter could harm the economy. Mervyn King warned that reduced production - caused by a gas supply crisis - could damage the UK's economic growth. As the big chill began to bite, British Gas announced it was activating its winter contingency plans to deal with the onset of severe weather across the country: "We are moving to 'red alert' status as the plummeting temperatures are putting extra strain on the country's central heating systems," said David Kendle, director of home servicing.

"Our gas engineers are already experiencing our busiest November ever and we are planning for 20,000 central heating breakdowns a day over the next few days with snow and ice forecast for much of the country.

"All routine work has been cancelled, and we're putting additional engineers on standby to help cope with emergency callouts. We've also recruited an extra 500 call-centre staff to cope with the very high number of calls we're getting.''

The power company Scottish Hydro Electric also warned yesterday of possible widespread damage to the electricity network from the heavy snowfalls, and predicted gale-force winds.

The company said extra engineers had already been drafted in and moved to strategic points throughout Scotland, including the Western Isles, with helicopters also on standby to ferry them to areas where they may be needed.

The weather was so bad in the Highlands yesterday that a rescue helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth could not reach four hill-walkers stranded on the plateau of Ben MacDui - the second-highest mountain in Britain - in the Cairngorm mountain range when they got trapped by the incoming snowstorm. The men, from Dundee, called Tayside Police from a mobile for help while they sheltered in bivvy bags as they endured the high winds and freezing wintry conditions.

The party had left their car at the Cairngorm Ski Centre on Wednesday morning and walked up to the summit of Ben MacDui.