LONDON — Christmas cheer was in short supply at Britain’s largest airport Sunday, where thousands of passengers had huddled overnight after snow and ice brought Heathrow to a virtual standstill.
In fact, Grinch-like angst was the overarching theme at airports and travel hubs up and down a country that is causing Britain to reexamine its right to call itself a “first world” nation.
The second of two large dumps of snow to smother the country in two weeks came this weekend, along with temperatures so low that forecasters predict Britain is likely to experience its coldest December since 1910. And more snow was on the way late Sunday and Monday, with between four to eight inches expected.
While some Britons are enjoying a winter wonderland, the inclement weather has brought the country to a near standstill, affecting the economy and costing at least one politician his job.
Travel warnings and delays
Would-be travelers have been advised against traveling to Heathrow, where no flights were arriving and only a few taking off on Sunday.
The story was similarly grim at Gatwick, where attempts were being made to get commuters off for festive getaways on the airport’s busiest day of the year.
The UK’s often strained train network also took a hit following the latest snowfalls, with lines closed around central and southwest England while motorways and minor roads were also blocked.
Recreation was also on hold: Dozens of horse racing meets were called off and dozens of soccer games in England and Scotland bit the dust, including a high profile match scheduled for Sunday in London between Chelsea and Manchester United.
‘Steep change’ in weather patterns?
While the UK traditionally experiences mild winters, the country’s Transport secretary, Philip Hammond, has asked the government’s chief scientific adviser to assess whether Britain is experiencing a “step change” in weather patterns due to climate change and whether it needed to spend more money on winter preparations.
But it’s already too late this year for the latter, turning the issue of snow into a political one that has already claimed one fairly high-profile casualty.
Scotland’s Transport secretary, Stewart Stevenson, resigned after admitting to failures the week before last in his handling of the response to snow, which led to thousands of vehicles being abandoned overnight on important road routes.
Alan Johnson, the opposition Labour Party’s finance spokesman, was scathing about the government’s response, claiming that many Britons simply felt they had been told to “get a shovel or stay at home.”
He claimed salt supplies had not been delivered in time and were arriving in “dribs and drabs.”
“Governing is about more than that when you hit a crisis,” Mr. Johnson told Sky News, citing Mr. Stevenson’s resignation last weekend, and warning that Britain’s fragile economy could also suffer. “This is one of the big worries for government: what this does in terms of the economy, because if people are not getting out to the shops, there is not the demand in the shops, then obviously that has an effect.”
Back at Heathrow, the airport’s operators said they had invested more than £6 million ($9.3 million) in the past year in technology to move snow and de-ice runways. But a spokesman acknowledged to the BBC: “There comes a point where you cannot do any more; when you’re moving snow and it’s freezing behind [the snow].”
Britain is not alone, however. The snow has roiled other European countries not used to dealing with significant snowfall.
In France, a quarter of flights were canceled at Charles de Gaulle Airport until at least early Sunday evening after snow enveloped Paris. And not even German efficiency could prevent Frankfurt airport, the country’s largest, from having to cancel more than 500 flights Sunday.