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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Archie Bland

Tuesday briefing: Five burning questions about the UK’s freezing weather

People walk on the street in front of The Elizabeth Tower, more commonly known as Big Ben, as cold weather continues, in London, Britain, December 12, 2022.
People walk on the street in front of The Elizabeth Tower, more commonly known as Big Ben, as cold weather continues, in London, Britain, December 12, 2022. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Good morning. It’s cold – even colder in parts of the country this morning than yesterday - and in some places, it’s been snowing. These facts alone were enough to cause the UK to enter a familiar state of mild crisis. But while the real dangers of freezing temperatures were made appallingly clear by the dreadful news that three boys have died after they fell into an icy lake in Solihull on Sunday, that was a thankfully isolated incident. For the most part, the country slowed but did not come to a standstill.

Many of the most serious issues that reared up as temperatures dropped – like the news that English hospitals are making emergency plans in case of power loss – were more to do with the energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than an innate inability to cope with bad weather. That didn’t stop everyone from thinking of themselves as heroic Arctic explorers for getting to the shops, though.

If it is quite hard to remember that temperatures like this aren’t that unusual for December when you’re shivering through them, it is even harder to figure out how to prepare for them in advance. For today’s newsletter, I spoke to Tera Allas, a former chief economist in the UK’s energy, transport and business departments, about how you go about making a country resilient in bad weather – and how you decide what’s worth protecting against. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Strikes | Nurses’ strikes will go ahead this week after talks ended in deadlock, with the Royal College of Nursing condemning ministers’ “belligerence” for refusing to discuss pay. Meanwhile, rail workers begin a 48-hour strike on Tuesday after RMT union members rejected a pay offer. Here’s a calendar of the stoppages expected in December.

  2. Sam Bankman-Fried | Police in the Bahamas have arrested the founder of collapsed cryptocurrency exchange FTX, the country’s attorney general said on Monday. The arrest came just 24 hours before Bankman-Fried was due to testify before US Congress.

  3. NHS | A “decade of neglect” has weakened the NHS to the point that it will not be able to tackle the 7 million-strong backlog of care, a government-commissioned report has concluded. The paper by the King’s Fund says years of denying funding to the health service has left it with too few staff.

  4. Energy | Researchers have reportedly made a breakthrough in the quest for a “near-limitless, safe, clean” source of energy by getting more out of a nuclear fusion reaction than they put in. Experts stressed that while the results would be an important proof of principle, the technology is not ready for practical applications.

  5. Tobacco | New Zealand has introduced a steadily rising smoking age to stop those aged 14 and under from ever being able to legally buy cigarettes in world-first legislation to outlaw smoking for the next generation. The new law will not restrict vape sales.

In depth: ‘You need to consider what is optimal if something only happens once every 10 years’

A special notice at Charing Cross station informs passengers that all Southeastern train services have been suspended due to the severe weather conditions on February 18, 2022 in London, England.
A special notice at Charing Cross station informs passengers that all Southeastern train services have been suspended due to the severe weather conditions in February 2022 in London. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images


How cold is it, actually?

Well, look, pretty cold, but nothing to get your frozen knickers in a twist about. Sunday was the coldest night of 2022 in the UK, with temperatures of almost -16C recorded in Braemar, Aberdeenshire, and -10C in Cumbria. It got even colder overnight in Braemar, reaching -17C. But the Met Office’s chief meteorologist Steve Willington says “these temperatures are not that unusual for this time of year”.

That -17C measurement pales in comparison with last year’s -23C, also recorded at Braemar – the coldest temperature since 1995. So why are there a gazillion frozen cobwebs on my Instagram feed? One suggestion: Oli Claydon, also of the Met Office, tells the Guardian’s Damian Carrington that it may feel noticeably cold because of how abrupt a change it is from the third warmest autumn on record. We have fairly short memories for this stuff. Also, frozen cobwebs are nice!


Is this kind of weather connected to the climate crisis?

No, writes Damian: “Cold conditions are expected in winter, with the weather then varying above and below the average from week to week.”

That’s not evidence that the climate crisis isn’t real, though. In general, the expectation is that climate change will make extreme cold weather less likely in the UK, instead leading to “milder and wetter” winters, as this piece for The Conversation from last year sets out – noting that “no one under the age of 42 [now 43] has lived through what could be considered a historically cold winter season in central England.”


How severe is the impact?

In general, severe enough to cause real disruption; maybe not severe enough to justify headlines about Britain “grinding to a halt”. Motorways and major roads closed in the south-east, Gwyn Topham writes, while rail services on Greater Anglia, Southeastern, and East Midlands Railway were among those affected. 300 flights were cancelled across the UK on Sunday and Monday. Power prices briefly hit record levels, while Jasper Jolly and Alex Lawson write that two coal-fired power stations were put on emergency standby, but were not ultimately needed.

Policymakers look at the direct economic impact of bad weather – but they will set lost output against the likelihood that much of it will be caught up when conditions improve. Many public estimates have a finger-in-the-icy-wind quality, but for a rough sense of scale, a robust analysis by the Office for National Statistics in 2010 gave a central estimate of the daily cost of transport disruption from severe winter weather then at £280m.

When figuring out wider impacts, Tera Allas, director of research and economics at McKinsey UK, says that it’s important to also “take into account the impact on health and life. So, for example, there will be a cost in carbon emissions. And if there are fatalities, there’s a wellbeing cost to friends and relatives.”

One way to build those kinds of factors into analysis is to be guided by the costs of insurance against extreme weather events. You can also ask about the value of people’s time, Allas said: “Let’s say people lose 12 hours of their life sitting in traffic or something as a result of significant disruption – you can do what economists call ‘willingness to pay’ surveys: how much would you pay to avoid it? People are quite bad at predicting what they would pay, but it gives you a relative measure.”


How does the government think about preparing for the cold?

Gritters, less common as council budgets are cut, spreading on the streets on December 28, 2020 in Stourbridge, England.
Gritters, less common as council budgets are cut, spreading on the streets in December 2020 in Stourbridge, England. Photograph: Cameron Smith/Getty Images

It’s complicated – in part because you are trying to assess how much it’s worth investing to prevent something that might not happen often, and predicting long-term events is very hard to do precisely. “You do a cost-benefit analysis,” said Allas. “It’s almost like an insurance policy. So let’s take, for example, road conditions in the UK: having grit bins at the side of the road doesn’t cost much to have and maintain. Other mitigation options like snow ploughs or forcing everyone to use winter tyres will be more expensive. And you need to consider what is optimal if something only happens once every ten years, or once every hundred years.”

That’s part of why you’ll occasionally see headlines about the UK’s abject failure to prepare for extremely severe hot or cold weather: it just doesn’t happen often enough, with high enough costs, to justify preparing as the Middle East or Scandinavia might. Still, there are legitimate reasons for concern about the quality of recent governmental planning. In October, a report by parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy warned that, even as climate change bites, no single minister has responsibility for ensuring the resilience of Critical National Infrastructure (CNI). The committee pointed to incidents like the death of three people in a 2020 train derailment caused by torrential rains in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire as the cost.

Another factor: there’s no point in spending up front if you aren’t going to keep everything working. “There’s a scenario where you build up that capability, let’s say ploughs or de-icing machinery or whatever, but the event is so rare that you don’t practice using it. If you don’t take those maintenance costs into account, you spend a bunch of money without getting the benefit.”


Has austerity changed that analysis?

One problem with the real world application of these methods: “People are not the rational robots that economists often used in their models. We all have biases,” said Allas. Central government economists will contribute to the “green book” guide for evaluating policy, but different departments and levels of government will inevitably have different costs, priorities and incentives. “And it’s really hard to compare different things in a unified metric, it can feel like apples and oranges.”

If it’s hard enough to agree on what to prioritise, it gets harder still when resources are reduced, as they have been since 2010: it is very easy to find reports of councils economising, and even if we have a lot more gritting machines with hilarious names these days, that may not amuse people that much in, say, West Sussex, which had 38 gritters in 2008/9 and now has just 19.

There’s also the question of whether tighter budgets reduce the ability to think long-term. This is not an area where Allas has seen detailed evidence, she cautioned. “But when people are under any kind of stress they are more prone to cognitive biases. If you’re running from a tiger, you don’t think long-term. You just want to get out of the tiger’s way.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • The sSpiralling violence in Haiti, particularly in its urban centres, has spared almost no one – and that includes the media. Romelo Vilsaint is the eighth journalist to be killed or go missing this year, and the likelihood forof anyone being held accountable for this crime is slim. Luke Taylor sets out how the country became deadly for the press. Nimo

  • Gaby Hinsliff is sceptical about the reliability of Matt Hancock’s book in her review: the former health secretary “never actually kept a diary but hasn’t let that stop him publishing one.” In the end, “there are kernels of truth in here … It’s just a shame extracting them feels much like enduring one of I’m a Celebrity’s bush tucker trials.” Archie

  • Helen Sullivan’s The nature of … column always makes me interested in flora and fauna I never knew I should care about. Here’s her riveting short piece on stingrays, which have scales for teeth, teeth-like scales, “literally inhale their food, gulping down the electric signal”, and in summary are absolutely wild. Archie

  • After groundbreaking research found that people who use chemical straighteners are at double the risk of uterine cancer, Deborah Douglas looks at why many black women choose to continue to use them. Nimo

  • Once you’ve watched the White Lotus finale, you’ll definitely want to read as much about it as possible: start with Rebecca Nicholson’s five star review and Sophie Gilbert’s acute piece in the Atlantic. No spoilers here, but Gilbert is absolutely right that “[redacted] craved [redacted], and [redacted]”. Archie

World Cup

Alexis Mac Allister is embraced by Lionel Messi after scoring for Argentina against Poland.
Alexis Mac Allister is embraced by Lionel Messi after scoring for Argentina against Poland. Photograph: Michael Regan/FIFA/Getty Images

Today’s World Cup briefing is a mouthwatering preview of tonight’s semi-final between Argentina and Croatia, and there’s plenty more to read. Ten days ago, Carlos Javier Mac Allister sat at Stadium 974 alongside his two eldest sons and watched his youngest, Alexis, score for Argentina. Mac Allister played with Diego Maradona for Argentina: now he’s watching his son link up with Lionel Messi. Sid Lowe spoke with Mac Allister senior ahead of tonight’s game.

For Croatia, the path to this match is a success story built on family values and a sprinkling of stardust. As Nick Ames writes, now only Messi and Argentina stand in the way of a country of less than 4m people defying the odds to reach a second World Cup final in a row.

Tomorrow night sees Morocco take on France. Sid Lowe writes about Morocco keeper Yassine “Bono” Bounou, and the “sliding doors” VAR decision that gave him a shot at the big time. And David Hytner hears from French defender Raphaël Varane about how a knee injury in October nearly ended his World Cup dream.


For all the latest on Qatar, from the scandals to the scores, sign up to Football Daily – our free, sometimes funny, newsletter

The front pages

Guardian front page 13 december 2022

The Guardian leads with “Government report blames NHS crisis on Tory ‘decade of neglect’” while the Times has “Last-minute talks to halt nurse strike break down”.

The Telegraph says “Taxis may be used as ambulances in strikes” and the i newspaper goes with “NHS will ‘block book’ taxis during paramedic strike action”. The Mail says “Frozen Britain grinds to a halt” while the FT’s top story is “Microsoft agrees £1.5bn deal for 4% stake in London Stock Exchange”.

The Sun leads on the ice lake tragedy with the headline “Jack, 10 died trying to save ice lads” while the Express has “Tragedy beyond words”.

Today in Focus

An employee demonstrates the work process before freezing eggs in a Fertility Research lab at Cha Fertility Center in Bundang, South Korea
The process before freezing eggs seen in a fertility research lab in South Korea. Photograph: Heo Ran/Reuters

Should you freeze your eggs?

Since egg freezing became available to anyone who could afford it a decade ago in the UK it has increased tenfold. But are clinics transparent with women about their chances of a successful pregnancy?

Cartoon of the day | Becky Barnicoat

cartoon on industrial action

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

More than 100 people, aged between nine and 17, were involved in the project at Queen Mary’s Hospital in east London.
More than 100 people, aged between nine and 17, were involved in the project at Queen Mary’s Hospital in east London. Photograph: Heritage of London Trust

Queen Mary’s Hospital was opened in the 19th-century in the working-class east London area of Stratford. It served the local residents, who mostly worked in factories and workshops where accidents and injuries were common. The hospital was a “lighthouse”, as one person said at the time, in an area without any light. But after the second world war and a demolition in the 1980s, all that remained was a poorly maintained archway.

Now, 110 young people who live in the area have helped restore and renovate this monument in one of the most deprived boroughs in the city, as part of a pioneering arts youth programme aimed at helping them connect with and learn about the history of where they grew up.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

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