Page last updated at 19:42 GMT, Sunday, 10 January 2010

Battle to beat freeze and keep schools and roads open

A digger pours salt into a waiting truck
Emergency deliveries of salt are en route to councils

The government has pledged to do all it can to keep roads and schools open, amid signs the severe wintry weather is easing slightly.

The Met Office is currently issuing no severe weather warnings, but says snow, ice and low temperatures will continue.

The government has urged schools to make every effort to open to enable pupils to sit exams due this week.

A man has died after falling through ice on the River Tees in Stockton while trying to rescue his dogs.

Local Government Minister Rosie Winterton said great efforts were being made nationally and locally to beat the freeze.

"Council workers are working extremely hard to ensure that as many of the roads are open as possible so that people can get to work, people can, if at all possible, keep their hospital appointments, and that children can get to school. But there's no doubt that it is very difficult," she said.

Struggling to free a car that skidded off the road

Schools Secretary Ed Balls urged head teachers not to "overstate the risks" of icy playground and staff shortages.

"It is vital that schools do everything they possibly can to stay open so that valuable lessons are not missed, exams disrupted or life made very difficult for working parents," he said.

On Monday, thousands of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland start a round of AS and A-level exams, and some GCSEs.

England's exam regulator Ofqual has come in for some criticism for refusing to postpone the tests.

If candidates cannot take the modules, they might have to wait until the next round in June or have estimated grades.

An Ofqual spokesman said: "These arrangements are the fairest possible for all candidates - both those affected by the snow and those who are not."

Essential journeys

Meanwhile, forecasters say slightly milder air has been feeding in from the east, bringing a mix of rain, sleet and some snow, with a slight thaw across parts of England and Wales.

Get the latest on school closures and travel problems via your BBC Local website
Check if snow is forecast in your area at BBC Weather
Details of motorway and local road closures and public transport disruption are available at BBC Travel News
For advice on handling difficult driving conditions, see the Highways Agency website
For information about severe weather warnings, see the Met Office website
For information about staying healthy in the current cold snap, see the NHS Winter Health website

There will be some further snow overnight, mainly across hilly parts of Wales and northern England, but any disruption is likely to be limited. Many areas will remain icy.

The Met Office says it will stay cold and windy in the week ahead, but with daytime temperatures creeping above freezing a slight thaw can be expected in most areas.

During the cold snap, UK councils have been using about 60,000 tonnes of salt daily and supplies have been running short.

The Highways Agency and local authorities have agreed to cut use of grit and salt by 25%.

The Highways Agency has stopped gritting hard shoulders on motorways in England and councils have had to focus on making sure main routes - public transport routes, and those outside hospitals, schools and supermarkets - are free of ice.

A member of the British Army 36 Royal Engineer Gurkha regiment hands a meal to an elderly woman in Chatham, Kent
The Army helped deliver food to the elderly in Kent

The Highways Agency said motorways were mostly open, but a spokesman added: "We're warning drivers to check their route before setting off, and only to make essential journeys."

In addition to the UK's two main rock salt suppliers working at full capacity, a Cheshire chemical plant diverted 12,000 tonnes of salt destined for food and chlorine production in Germany to hard-pressed councils in the UK.

Ineos's initial supplies will go to councils in East Yorkshire, Pembrokeshire, Gloucestershire, Bradford, Sheffield and Fife.

School dig

The death of the man in Stockton brought the total of weather-related deaths during the cold snap to 27.

Villagers clear snow to the local school in Radstock
Parents pitched in to clear snow leading to their school

On Saturday, a 42-year woman died after being found near shops in Newcastle.

Easyjet and BA have cancelled some flights, and British Airways told passengers to go to their airport only after checking for delays and cancellations.

The Association of Train Operating Companies said most operators had returned to normal timetables - with 88% of scheduled trains running on time on Sunday - and many would run a fuller service on Monday.

Other disruptions blamed on the prolonged period of sub-zero weather include:

  • A&E departments treating more sprained and fractured wrists, ankles and collarbones
  • Red Cross volunteers having one of their busiest periods for 30 years
  • Soldiers delivering meals and supplies to vulnerable people in Kent
  • More call-outs for companies to fix boilers and frozen pipes
  • Many pubs and restaurants quiet as customers huddle at home
  • Airport and city centre hotels full of stranded passengers
  • Some panic buying of groceries in some shops

Some schools have taken unusual steps to stay open, from issuing parents and pupils with shovels, to Brighton College bringing in mattresses and sleeping bags for a pre-exam sleep-over.

At a village primary school in Wollaston, Northamptonshire, the head teacher asked parents to each bring a bucket of council rock salt with them on Monday to help replenish its stocks.


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