Arctic blast brings parts of UK to icy standstill

LONDON (Reuters) - Blizzards swept across central and southern England on Wednesday, bringing more road and rail chaos, forcing airlines to suspend flights and hundreds of schools to close.

A man walks through the snow at Arlington Row in Bibury, the Cotswolds, western England January 6, 2010. The Arlington Row cottages were built in 1380 as a monastic wool store and then converted into a row of weavers' cottages in the 17th century. REUTERS/ Eddie Keogh

The Met Office issued severe weather warnings across the entire country, predicting that up to 40 cm of snow (16 inches) could fall in the home counties, parts of the south and greater London by the end of Wednesday.

If, as forecast, the extreme weather conditions continue until Saturday the disruption could cost the UK economy up to 2 billion pounds.

Stephen Alambritis, of the Federation of Small Businesses, estimated 10 percent of the nation’s 3O million-strong workforce missed work on Tuesday and Wednesday -- either unable to travel or forced to stay at home and look after their children.

“That’s a cost to the UK economy of 600 million pounds per day...but it reduces as the days go by because people find inventive ways of getting in or work from home,” he told Reuters.

“The cost is trade lost obviously, sales down, absence from work -- staff still need to be paid -- canceled meetings, orders not satisfied or delayed, so there are a number of issues,” he said.

After the north of England and Scotland were worst-hit by the freeze on Tuesday, the Met Office warned of “extreme weather” for much of southern England.

Forecasters said Hampshire, Oxfordshire, West Berkshire, Surrey and Buckinghamshire could see “exceptionally heavy snowfall” as the blizzards moved south.

They said between 15cm and 30cm (6in and 12in) of snow is expected, but there could be in excess of 40cm (16in) in the worst-hit areas.

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“This is expected to cause widespread disruption to the transport network and could lead to problems with power supplies,” it said.

The Met Office also that snow depths of over 40cm have been reported across the hills of northeast England and the Scottish Borders.

Hundreds of schools have been forced to close with Lancashire, West Yorkshire, the West Midlands, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire and Surrey worst hit.

The cold snap, which forecasters said is the worst in 30 years, brought travel chaos, with ice and snow making driving treacherous and heavy disruption to rail services.

Close to a 1,000 motorists were trapped in their cars on the A3 over night in Hampshire, with many others forced to abandon their vehicles in the rest of the county as snow drifts made roads impassable.

A spokeswoman for BAA said a total of 29 flights in and out of Heathrow had been canceled on Wednesday.

“Heathrow Airport is open; however there will inevitably be some delays and cancellations due to the severe weather conditions,” she said. Passengers are advised to check with their airline before leaving for the airport.

Luton airport was closed from about 2030 GMT on Tuesday evening until 0430 GMT on Wednesday, with a total of 44 flights in and out of the airport canceled.

Flights from Gatwick have also been severely affected after it was forced to close over night, with more than 120 flights canceled and many more delayed, according to its website.

Luton and Southampton airports are open but are suffering delays and cancellations, according to media reports.

Rail operators have announced reduced services and delays including East Coast, East Midlands, Chiltern Railways, First Great Western, National Express East Anglia, South West Trains, Southeastern and Southern trains.

Reporting by Stefano Ambrogi and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Keith Weir