The winter weather causing havoc across Northern Ireland is set to continue for at least 10 more days.
As it emerged that last month was the coldest December in nearly 30 years, weather watchers warned there is no sign of any let-up in the icy conditions that have caused havoc on roads and disrupted public services and businesses.
Snow ploughs were sent out overnight as the sub-zero conditions brought snow to the north, north west and higher ground. Temperatures are expected to plummet as low as -6C tonight.
Nine schools were forced to close their doors this morning after they were hit by heating problems and burst pipes.
Meanwhile, commuters battled perilous road conditions caused by snow and widespread black ice.
Temperatures dropped as low as -3C in Enniskillen overnight but could reach -6C tonight. Snow ploughs were brought in to play following heavier showers in the north and north-west and on higher ground.
Meanwhile, there were concerns that Northern Ireland’s salt mountain could be shrinking fast — although Roads Service said there was no danger of stocks running out — and calls for Roads Minister Conor Murphy to set up an emergency fund to treat rural roads where people face treacherous conditions.
Dundonald High School, Lisnagarvey High School, Blackwater Integrated in Downpatrick, Strangford College, Derryvoy PS in Crossgar, Killinchy PS, Donaghy PS, St Mary’s High School in Belleek and Grove PS nursery were all closed today.
Police cautioned against playing on frozen lakes after finding footprints and bicycle tracks on the Round Lake in Fivemiletown.
“There is no uniformity in the formation of ice and while it may seem sturdy and able to support weight, it can become very thin very quickly,” the PSNI said.
“If you see someone, or a pet, fall through the ice and get into difficulty never try and rescue them yourself — instead ring 999 immediately.”
Forecaster Aisling Creevy of Meteogroup warned temperatures could plummet to -6c tonight, with forecasts up to 10 days ahead showing no evidence of a thaw. There’s absolutely no sign in sight of it warming up at all — these northerly winds are staying. “Today there could be snow showers towards the end of the day with possibly the odd rumble of thunder,” she said.
People were reported to be taking salt bins for their own use, making it hard for Roads Service to offer local grit supplies.
The Department for Social Development said that 166,000 more low-income people will be receiving £25 Cold Weather Payments after temperatures dropped below zero for seven days in a row.
Transport: drivers face delays
Roads Service this morning reported delays along the M1, on the Shore Road in Belfast, the Westlink and the A1 approaching Hillsborough.
Commuters also reported problems on the Ballymena bypass, the Old Belfast Road between Magheralin and Moira and accidents in the Newtownards area.
More heavy snow and ice, which caused treacherous driving conditions across the North West this monring, is forecast. Motorists were warned to take care on the Glenshane Pass.
Metro and Ulsterbus services in Armagh, Newtownards, Rathfriland, Colerine and Omagh were disrupted.
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Airports: City of Derry Airport this morning faced a second day of delays.
The 8.10am flight to Dublin, the 8.50am to London Luton and 10.10am to Glasgow were all delayed by at least two hours.
Meanwhile, the arrival of the 7.50am flight from Dublin was expected to be delayed by several hours, while this morning’s flight from Luton had to be redirected to Belfast, with passengers being taken to Londonderry by bus.
To keep Belfast City Airport open, staff have used three snow ploughs, while Belfast International Airport has managed to remain open with only a two-hour closure on December 20.
Sub-zero weather has led to a number of schools across Northern Ireland facing disruption or closure.
Nine schools were forced to close this morning after they were hit by heating problems, burst pipes and surrounding icy roads.
Among those affected by the freezing temperatures were Dundonald High School and St Mary’s High in Belleek, which were closed.
Around seven schools in the Southern Education and Library Board suffered burst pipe damage but their counterparts in the North Eastern Board escaped unscathed.
In the Western Board, some 47 schools were affected by frozen pipes.
The DRD salts 4,300 miles of road in Northern Ireland which carry 80% of all traffic in the province.
However, salted roads represent just 27% of the road network.
More than 55,000 tonnes of salt are spread by Roads Service annually.
A spokesman for the DRD said they have adequate stocks of salt and there is no danger of it running out.
However, concerns have been raised by local representatives about the supply of salt and the lack of salting on small rural roads.
Efforts are made to ensure that small settlements of more than 100 dwellings have a treated link to the salted network.
Ambulances: crews are coping
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) said crews are coping with hazardous driving conditions — especially in rural areas.
John McPoland from the NIAS said: “When conditions are as bad as those we have been experiencing recently, the impact on the service is a slight delay in response to emergency calls. However the ambulances, thanks to the dedication, professionalism and driving skills of our staff, are still getting through to those patients who are in need of assistance.
“There has, however, been a small number of incidents over the cold spell when vehicles have slid off the road but thankfully without injury to staff who were the only people involved.”
Bins: collections proving trickyBIN collections are proving tricky for many councils.
In Belfast only services in three roads were affected yesterday— Wolfhill Road, Wolfhill Link and part of Knockbreda Road, a council spokesperson said.
But a four-man crew had to be brought to hospital to be examined after the lorry they were travelling in slid 50 yards in the Ballysillan Road area. None of the men were seriously injured.
Derry City Council, meanwhile, introduced a contingency plan which has been in place since December 23.
A spokesman said: “If we can’t drive into streets we are asking our staff to go down and pull the bins up so we can get them collected.”
Farmers: a setback with supplies
The Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) is in talks with DRD Roads Service after some members suffered setbacks in getting fresh milk supplies collected and animal feed delivered to yards.
UFU president Graham Furey said: “We understand the current situation is that while the priority is being given to roads carrying more than 1,500 vehicles a day, Roads Service are trying to grit secondary roads where possible. We have agreed that if a farmer is experiencing difficulties with milk collections or feed deliveries they should contact their local Roads Service depot directly and the specific issue will be investigated.”
Hospitals: rise in patient intake
Health Trusts across Northern Ireland said they had experienced a rise in patients being treated for breaks and slips caused by the ice and snow.
Out of the three hospitals in the South Eastern Trust area, Lagan Valley Hospital experienced a slight increase in patients attending the emergency department due to falls/accidents.
The Western Health and Social Care Trust said that from December 22 to December 28, 2009, 60% of people attending Altnagelvin Hospital's Accident and Emergency department have trauma injuries sustained as the result of slips and trips on ice and snow.
Plumbers: plagued by burst pipes
Plumbers have had little opportunity to relax as they were inundated with pleas for help from customers affected by burst pipes.
Belfast plumber David McWilliams has dealt with some 85 callouts since Christmas Day. “We’re working 20 hours a day at the moment — we’re getting one job done and we’re back on another. There’s not enough plumbers about at the minute to get the work done,” he said. “We have a couple of jobs tomorrow and they are flying a specialist insurance assessor in from England. A lot of the old houses still have the old lagging on the pipes when people should have replaced them with the 22mm.”
Oil prices: On the up once more
As the temperatures plummet the cost of home heating oil in Northern Ireland is again steadily rising.
Prices have increased by 24% between January 2009 and January 2010.
According to the Consumer Council For Northern Ireland, the average price of 900 litres of oil has jumped by £30 in the last month.
At the start of December the average price of 500 litres was £208 and 900 litres was £358.78.
According to the most recent figures, 500 litres now costs £222.87 while the average price of 900 litres is £383.73.
There has been no noticeable increase in the price of gas.
Funerals - update
Despite fears that the severe cold weather would have an impact on funerals, burial or cemetery services at Roselawn Cemetery in Belfast have not been disrupted so far by the cold spell.
A council spokeswoman said burial services are running as normal.
However, funeral directors have struggled as winter mortalities combined with treacherous conditions. WH Garvin in Castledawson say it has suffered some difficulties due to icy roads, but were duly assisted by the efforts of Magherafelt District Council, who salted routes that were due to be used for funeral processions.