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Snow blanket causes travel chaos

Large areas of Britain are blanketed in snow, leading to chaos on the roads, school closures and cancelled flights.

LONDON // Large areas of Britain were blanketed in snow yesterday, leading to chaos on the roads, school closures and cancelled flights as forecasters issued further severe weather warnings for several areas including London. The odds against a white Christmas had already been slashed before heavy snowfall hit areas stretching from the north-east of the country to the south. Temperatures plunged to as low as -3°C during Thursday night and the early hours of yesterday.

Many drivers spent part of the night stuck in their vehicles and, as snow continued to fall, police urged people not to attempt non-essential journeys. The areas worst hit covered much of the eastern part of England, with up to 20cm of snow having fallen already and more expected throughout yesterday. All flights were suspended for a time on what should have been a busy start to the morning at Luton Airport. Gatwick, another airport serving London, was closed overnight but reopened later.

Heathrow operated normally and in one other piece of good news for people hoping to escape wintry Britain over the holiday period, a threatened 12-day strike by British Airways cabin staff was called off after being declared illegal in the high court. Weather forecasters say it will be clear by Monday whether Britain can expect snow over Christmas. Betting odds have shortened from 8-1 to 9-4 for London alone and the leading bookmaker, William Hill, faces a huge payout if it snows on December 25.

"It all depends on the outcome of the battle between cold air from the east and warm, dry air from the west," said Dave Britton, chief spokesman for the Met Office, the UK's national weather service, "If the warm air wins, it will be mild and damp. If the cold air wins, we'll see the colder weather people probably want." Mr Britton said the question of whether it would snow at Christmas was "an absolute national obsession", adding: "We have a sweepstake in the office on when we will receive our first phone calls asking us about a white Christmas and this year it came towards the end of August. It's very subjective but if you ask me, I'd prefer it damp and mild. It just makes everything a little easier. But I suspect most would like it cold and crisp with the flurries of snow they associate with winter and see on their Christmas cards."

His comments reflect a country caught in two minds about wintry weather, some loving the romance of a white Christmas but others feeling a lot less sentimental about the effects. "At the risk of seeming a paid-up member of the bah humbug club, I just see snow as a nuisance, a potential cause of public transport disruption," said Pad Padoin, a businessman from west London. "We just don't seem to be able to cope with it, especially around the capital. People go out hopelessly ill-dressed, the ladies teetering along icy pavements in their high heels. The last time it really snowed, it took me two-and-a-half hours to get into work in central London and the same back."

But the Met Office pointed out that the sort of conditions that brought much of Britain to a standstill last February were "one in 18 or 20 year occurrences". "You couldn't justify to the taxpayers having a state of readiness permanently in place to deal with that level of frequency," said Mr Britton. And as Britons wrap up against the cold weather, they are also bracing themselves for chilly economic conditions in the new year. Already battered by the worldwide recession, the country faces a further period of austerity with more people likely to lose their jobs and taxes set to rise.

Even so, a surprisingly bold report on Christmas spending by the market research specialists Mintel was headed: There will be Christmas cheer this year. Mintel described the British consumer environment as full of contradictions and said retail sales for the whole of December would show modest growth, followed by a burst of immediate post-Christmas spending before value added tax is increased from 15 to 17.5 per cent next month.

A more severe downturn is predicted for after the general election due in the spring. crandall@thenational.ae

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