Big freeze plays havoc with Christmas weekend getaway

SWATHES of Britain ground to a halt today as the big freeze returned, throwing early getaway plans into jeopardy and threatening to leave homes without heating or presents at Christmas.

Arctic conditions meant flights were cancelled at several airports while some rail services were axed entirely and traffic was brought to a standstill on roads north of the border.

Plunging temperatures meant motorists faced "possibly the worst driving conditions imaginable" in Aberdeenshire as Scotland saw a near-repeat of the chaos earlier this month.

Today's disruption came as travel companies prepared for one of the busiest weekends of the year, with schools breaking up for the festive period and shoppers flocking to the high street.

However, there was misery for those who opted to order gifts online as many were left facing the prospect of depleted Christmas stockings after a number of retailers stopped deliveries entirely.

This came as weathermen suggested some parts of the south of England could see further snowfalls of up to 10 inches (25cm) tomorrow.

Aisling Creevey, a forecaster with MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said the weekend looked bleak for almost every part of the UK, with some areas experiencing "significant" snowfall.

"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 day," she said.

The Met Office issued heavy snow warnings for much of the country today, with more forecast for tomorrow.

Those hoping to travel were warned they may be forced to delay their plans.

Gavin Hill-Smith of the AA said: "The weather will undoubtedly cause disruption for people heading off for an early Christmas break, if they live in one of the affected areas.

"The issue today is that traffic will generally be busier nationwide as there will be more long-distance traffic as people start to head off for Christmas and the retail distribution network clears the backlog."

The breakdown service said it had received 11,000 call-outs by 3pm today, roughly 1,300 every hour.

Mr Hill-Smith added: "There are horrendous driving conditions in some parts, especially in Aberdeenshire, with driving, drifting snow and bad ice making for possibly the worst driving conditions imaginable, even for experienced drivers."

AA patrol officer Stewart Topp, who has 15 years' experience, said many motorists were "caught out" by sheet ice today in Croydon, south London, where conditions on the roads were the "worst I've ever seen".

"It was just like driving on an ice-rink. I have never seen anything like it," he said.

While working on a breakdown on a minor road, he witnessed three car accidents in the space of ten minutes.

Elsewhere, two pedestrians died after being hit by a Range Rover in Glasgow; a 17-year-old boy was killed when his car ploughed off the road in Bilsington, Kent; a woman in her 60s, thought to be from the Inverness area, was killed in a three-vehicle pile-up in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, and a 19-year-old man was stabbed in the neck after asking a group of teenagers to stop throwing snowballs.

Meanwhile, there was yet more misery for families, with fears a backlog of around four million parcels could increase during the latest cold snap as private carriers struggle to overcome delays caused by the first spell of ice and snow.

Industry insiders have suggested this could be the first year in which depots and offices do not clear all their gifts.

Rocketing oil prices and restricted deliveries have already left many without fuel and the Government has warned that the situation could become "very serious" if the cold weather persists. Some homes are now having to wait as long as four weeks for fuel to be delivered.

Downing Street has played down suggestions that oil may have to be rationed over the winter.

There was also bad news for business. Douglas McWilliams, chief executive of the Centre for Economics and Business Research, told the Daily Telegraph that as many as 800 or 900 firms could go bankrupt.

And many of those hoping to travel abroad saw their plans thrown into disarray as flights were cancelled and runways closed at Exeter Airport, Belfast International and London City Airport.

Budget airline easyJet has cancelled all its flights in and out of Gatwick airport between 6am and 10am tomorrow.

The British Red Cross has released 21,000 to support its response in Scotland, while volunteers across the country are gearing up to brave the elements in support of the emergency services.

But the snow brought some joy.

Many children delighted in a day off school ahead of their Christmas holidays - however, those hoping to enjoy a day at Cardiff's Winter Wonderland would have been disappointed as the attraction was forced to close.