Millions of people living in southern England and the Home Counties were told to prepare themselves for up to 40cm (16in) of snow last night, as Britain remained in the grip of the longest prolonged spell of cold weather for 30 years.
The Met Office issued its highest level of alert, warning of an impending “extreme weather event” that would bring travel chaos and threaten power supplies. Worst hit will be Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire — parts of which have not seen any snow since the arctic weather began before Christmas.
Forecasters said it would be snowing in London before dawn, bringing widespread disruption to the capital and forcing many workers to stay at home. The Met Office said the freezing conditions were expected to continue for up to two weeks. A meteorologist said: “This type of warning is very rare. A period of exceptionally heavy snowfall is expected with accumulations of 15-30cm and perhaps in excess of 40cm.”
Heavy snow fell across the north of England and Scotland yesterday, closing airports and shutting schools, while many motorways ground to a halt and smaller routes remained impassable. Bus services in Sheffield and other parts of South Yorkshire were suspended, leaving thousands without any means of transport. Temperatures plunged to a low of minus 14C in Scotland, and 29cm of snow fell in Spadeadam, Cumbria.
The National Grid also issued an alert urging power suppliers to use less gas as it tried to find more supplies from overseas following a 30% rise in demand. Gordon Brown and Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, sought to ease fears that Britain was running out of power, insisting that reserves would last through the cold snap, but shadow energy secretary Greg Clark claimed the UK had just eight days of gas remaining.
The Prime Minister said: “I think Britain can deal with these problems. There are always difficulties when we have a long spell of bad weather. But we can cope.”
Weather forecasters and advisors worked closely with the Highways Agency, local authorities and government agencies to prepare for the latest wintry blast. But there was little that could be done as the elements brought life to a standstill in many parts. All schools in Aberdeenshire, Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders were shut yesterday, and students across the north of England, Wales and Cornwall were also sent home for the day.
Last night, fears were also mounting for the safety of Ian Simpkin, 36, from Wath near Ripon in North Yorkshire, who left home on foot on Sunday morning and has not been seen since.