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Last Updated: Friday, 23 January, 2004, 17:30 GMT
Britain braced for snows and cold
Car in cold weather
The Highways Agency has pledged to keep motorways clear
Britain is set to plunge into freezing temperatures at the weekend with much of the country at risk of heavy snow, forecasters have warned.

From Sunday, the cold snap will spread south bringing snow showers to much of the UK by Tuesday, the Met Office says.

A cold blast from the Arctic will force temperatures even lower from Wednesday.

British Gas has warned the cold weather could cause widespread damage from frozen or burst pipes, which could cost hundreds of millions of pounds to fix.

The company predicts the plummeting temperatures could trigger more than 20,000 emergency calls a day and says one in five homes is at risk of damaged pipes.

It advised householders to check stopcocks are working and that pipe work, tanks and cisterns are well insulated.

It also says homes should be heated constantly, even if at a low level.

'Well prepared'

The bad weather will also test government measures designed to avoid a repeat of last year's travel chaos, which saw drivers stranded on snow-blocked roads.

The M11, parts of the M25 and many other routes in the south ground to a halt in January 2003 after heavy snow and freezing temperatures.

Scores of drivers were trapped in their cars on motorways overnight after the Highways Agency and its contractors failed to grit roads early enough.

Since then, new legislation on gritting has been introduced requiring local authorities to draw up comprehensive plans.

The Highways Agency said it had "pulled out all the stops" to avoid a repeat of last year's travel chaos.

"We are really well prepared for the bad weather this year, especially because of all the problems last year," a spokeswoman said.

Bill Wadrup, from the agency's south-east division, told BBC Radio Five Live last year's chaos had been caused by a gritting contractor holding his lorries back for an hour because he was worried the wind would blow the salt off the road.

'Travel equipped'

The Highways Agency has 700 snow ploughs and snow blowers working from 150 depots across England and has ordered 500,000 tons of salt for gritting machines.

But the agency also advised drivers to travel fully equipped with boots, a torch and a spade, as well as food and water, if they are obliged to venture out in the snow in their cars.

Motoring organisation the Automobile Association said "there were no excuses" if the authorities failed to keep roads clear.

There are fears as many as 50,000 people will die in the UK this winter
Network Rail spokesman Steve Turner said train operators would be ready for the cold snap with no question of the "wrong type of snow".

With temperatures predicted to sink as low as minus 10C in Scotland mid-week, old person's charity Age Concern has also urged people not to economise on heating.

"The predicted dramatic drop in temperature will have alarmed many older people who are already finding it difficult to keep warm and stay active," the charity's director general Gordon Lishman said.

Those with money worries should contact their local branch of Age Concern, he added.

The BBC's James Ingham
"The Highways Agency is adamant that it's better prepared this year"

Thousands trapped in snow storm
31 Jan 03  |  England

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