BRITAIN was in the grip of the worst winter weather for nearly 30 years last night, with widespread disruption and warnings that temperatures are expected to plummet as low as –20C by the weekend.
• Traffic backed up on the M8 due to weather conditions. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Up to 16in (40cm) of snow was forecast for southern England, while both rail lines and two major roads to the Highlands were among the key transport links blocked.
Supermarkets reported panic buying by shoppers hoping to stock up on comfort food and anti-freeze. Salt and cat litter were also being snapped up to clear paths.
One in ten people stayed off work yesterday because of the conditions, sparking concern from business groups that it would cost the economy 60 million.
And there were fears Britain could run short of gas after the National Grid warned major users for only the second time in 30 years to cut consumption, as demand rocketed by nearly a third.
Finance secretary John Swinney is due to make a statement on the conditions in Scotland today. Last night, he urged people to "pull together and look out for those in need".
More snow is forecast across eastern Scotland from early today, with further falls in the North-east, Tayside and the Highlands later. It will remain freezing across much of the Central Belt and reach only –6C in the central Highlands. Thousands of pupils will have a second day off as schools remain shut.
The Met Office said it had been the most prolonged spell of freezing conditions since December 1981, and warned: "Bitterly cold and wintry weather is forecast to continue for the next couple of weeks, with further snowfall expected at times."
Parts of the Highlands are expected to see temperatures of –20C this week. The record low was at Altnaharra in Sutherland in 1995, when it plunged to –27.2C, a figure it shares with Braemar.
The Met Office's chief forecaster, Tony Waters, said the heaviest snowfall last night – of 30cm to 40cm – had been expected in Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire, in southern England.
In Scotland, the main A9 north-south route was closed last night in several places, including Slochd and Drumochter between Perth and Inverness, with the A96 Inverness-Aberdeen road shut at Huntly. Northern Constabulary said a large number of vehicles were stuck in the snow. Highland councillor John Laing said: "This is an extraordinary spell of weather – the worst since 1978."
Several roads in Aberdeenshire were closed, with the council in neighbouring Moray reporting there was no room left for snowploughs to do their work because of the height of snow banks along many roads.
Elsewhere, pile-ups blocked lanes on the Edinburgh city bypass and the M77 in Glasgow, while a car span off the M74 in Lanarkshire.
Central Scotland Chief Constable Kevin Smith, who is in charge of road policing for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, said the conditions were the worst for 20 years and drivers should consider "very carefully" if their journey was absolutely necessary.
Dumfries and Galloway Council said it had barely one day's supply of salt left and called on ministers for a priority delivery. Council leader Ivor Hyslop said the Scottish Government should "stop perpetuating the myth" that there were adequate salt supplies.
"We have been alerting the government to the situation for at least two weeks, and there has been no improvement. It's time they came clean," he said.
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The Perth-Inverness railway line has been disrupted after an empty freight train derailed at Carrbridge on Monday night.
The line is open to Aviemore, where a replacedment bus service has been put on to and from Inverness.
Two cranes were being drafted in from England to lift two wagons that crashed on to their sides. The Inverness-Aberdeen rail line was also closed, with no alternative transport available.
Signalling and points problems and train breakdowns hit rail services on many lines in Fife, Glasgow, Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and West Lothian.
The replacement bus service between Inverness and Aviemore (as a result of the freight train derailment at Carrbridge) has been withdrawn due to deteriorating weather conditions in the area which are affecting the main A9 between Inverness and Perth.
Caledonian MacBrayne ferry sailings between Stornoway and Ullapool and Lochmaddy and Uig on Skye were cancelled.
Several flights at Aberdeen airport were cancelled after it was closed for two hours for snow clearance. Glasgow airport also suffered delays.
Those Scottish councils closing all their schools today included Aberdeenshire, East Lothian and Scottish Borders. Four schools in Edinburgh are also shut.
There were blanket school closures yesterday across Dumfries and Galloway, with dozens shut in other areas, including Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Fife and South Lanarkshire.
Scottish Water said its staff had gone to extraordinary lengths to keep supplies flowing. Efforts included wading for miles through thigh-deep snow in Wester Ross to repair leaks in the middle of the night and thawing out pumping equipment in the Cairngorms in temperatures of –19C.
In shops across the country, goods selling fast included salt, sledges and carrots.
The Scottish Government announced that offenders serving community service sentences had been drafted in to help clear roads and pavements.
Labour, meanwhile, urged ministers to set up an emergency helpline for people in need of support. Its deputy Scottish leader, Johann Lamont, said: "I am deeply concerned about the invisible impact of the bad weather on vulnerable people.
"The prioritisation of main roads is understandable, but icy pavements in residential areas mean that many elderly folk cannot leave their homes."
British Waterways Scotland urged people to take care near ice-covered canals.
A spokeswoman said: "No-one should walk on frozen waters under any circumstances, no matter how tempting this may be."
In England, a lorry driver died in a collision on the M60 in Greater Manchester, while a motorist escaped unhurt after his car was hit by a train when it skidded on to a level crossing at South Duffield in North Yorkshire.
Channel Tunnel services, badly disrupted before Christmas due to problems with Eurostar trains, were delayed yet again.
This time, the problem concerned a freight shuttle train in the tunnel.
THE BIG FREEZE
One in 10 fails to get to work, at cost of 60m
Couple cut off for for than two weeks
Criminals drafted in to help clear away snow
Energy fears over gas and kerosene shortages