No heating and no presents: What a way to start Christmas

BRITAIN will be engulfed by a second Arctic freeze over the weekend, stoking fears that thousands of homes could be without heating and mountains of presents could go undelivered over the Christmas period.

Heavy snow storms will blast nearly every part of the UK at some point on Saturday and Sunday, with plummeting temperatures struggling to climb above freezing, forecasters said.

Rocketing oil prices and restricted deliveries have already left families without fuel and the Government has warned the situation could become "very serious" if the cold weather persists.

A backlog of around four million parcels could grow during the predicted cold snap, as private carriers struggle to overcome delays caused by the first spell of snow and ice.

Heavy snow returned to northern Scotland and Northern Ireland overnight with parts of Wales and south-west England also being affected.

Icy blizzards and temperatures as low as -6C caused major disruption on transport networks with police in the Scottish Highlands warning commuters not to travel. A section of the M2 in Northern Ireland was also closed due to heavy snow.

The Met Office today issued heavy snow warnings for northern Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and south-west England. Widespread ice was also expected in most parts of the UK during the rush hour.

Aisling Creevey, a forecaster with Meteogroup, the Press Association's weather centre, said the weekend's weather looked bleak for almost every part of the UK, with some areas experiencing "significant" accumulations of snow.

"Pretty much everywhere in the UK will be affected by snow showers at some point this weekend and temperatures will really struggle to rise above freezing during the days," she said.

The second spell of bitterly cold weather will heap more misery on families in the run-up to Christmas with some homes having to wait for as long as four weeks for oil to be delivered.

In the last month alone oil prices have jumped from under 40p a litre to more than 70p in some cases, amid allegations oil companies are fixing their prices.

Christmas deliveries have been hit hard with a number of internet retailers stopping deliveries in Scotland. Industry insiders said it could be the first year in which depots and offices do not clear all their gifts.

Simon Veale, director of parcel and carrier management firm Global Freight Solutions, said dealing with the backlog was like "bailing water out of a sinking ship".

"This year in Scotland and the North East it is likely Father Christmas won't be coming," he added.

"There are likely to be more than four million new parcels in the system every day this week on top of several million more which still had to be cleared from the recent extreme weather.

"If there are additional falls of snow, as the weather forecasts are suggesting, the unhappy situation will be compounded further still."

The Royal Mail is planning to deliver 7,000 rounds on Sunday to around one million addresses.

Managing director Mark Higson said: "This is already the worst December weather the UK has seen for almost 30 years. Like other essential services, we have faced major difficulties with items moving in and out of areas most impacted by snow and ice, particularly Scotland and north-east England. We will continue to do everything in our power to deliver as quickly as possible."

The Association of Train Operating Companies said it will run "ghost trains" to help keep routes open and have hundreds of ground staff on duty to try to keep key junctions and points clear of snow, as well as clearing and gritting platforms and station approaches to improve passenger safety.

Robin Gisby, Network Rail's director of operations and customer services, said: "We have pulled in even more manpower and machinery to help tackle the bad weather ahead.

"Thousands of our people will be out overnight working to keep routes open, keep trains running, to offer the best possible service we can."

Meanwhile, the Local Government Association and Highways Agency urged motorists to be careful on the nation's treacherous roads.

Council gritting crews will be out in force, according to Peter Box, who chairs the LGA's economy and transport board.

He said: "Salt is a precious commodity at this time of year and councils have been given guidance from the Government on how to use it carefully and to the maximum effect.

"While we are aware of the need to conserve salt for what is expected to be a long, cold winter, councils are committed to ensuring that roads are properly treated and will not compromise on safety."

In Aberdeen, heavy snowfall caused treacherous road conditions overnight, leaving hundreds of motorists at a standstill.

Motorist Kirsty McCullough told Radio 5 Live that a four-mile journey took her four hours.

"It's absolutely awful, the roads are sheet ice - they've not been gritted at all," she said.

"I can't understand how this could have happened and it is just not acceptable."

The latest drop in temperatures comes as travel companies prepare for one of the busiest weekends of the year, with schools breaking up and the start of the Christmas getaway.

Forecasters added that some parts of the south of England could experience up to 25cm of snow on Saturday.

Bookmakers slashed the odds of a white Christmas, with William Hill offering 6/4 for it to snow in London on December 25.

There were also fears today that the Arctic freeze forecast for the coming days could cause more than 1,000 businesses to go bust.

Millions of people were expected to hit the shops for the final weekend of Christmas shopping, but with expected travel disruption due to the adverse weather, many could be forced to stay at home.

Douglas McWilliams, the chief executive of the Centre for Economics and Business Research, told the Daily Telegraph: "As many as 800 or 900 business could go bankrupt which otherwise wouldn't have, because this is the straw that breaks the camel's back."