UK heatwave: Britain creaks as it awaits 40°C temperatures — its hottest day on record

Schools close and trains are cancelled as people are warned of heatstroke amid two-day heatwave

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Britain was baking in near-record heat on Monday as runways melted, trains were cancelled and a teenage boy died while swimming in a lake, as forecasts suggested Tuesday wold be even hotter.

Linked to a split in the jet stream, temperatures are forecast to rise as high as 40°C or 41°C - which would smash a UK record - during a two-day heatwave that is expected to make Britain warmer than the Caribbean and even the Sahara.

The Royal Air Force halted flights at its Brize Norton air base in Oxfordshire after the hot weather melted the runway, Sky News reported, citing a military source, while flights at London Luton airport were suspended due to a runway defect caused by the high temperatures.

Britons were warned of heatstroke in a country not built for extreme heat as the country's first red “extreme heat” warning was issued. Most homes, schools and small businesses in Britain do not have air-conditioning.

A high of 37.1°C was provisionally recorded in Hawarden, north Wales, beating a 32-year-old record for the nation. In England, by late afternoon, temperatures had risen to 38.1°C in Santon Downham, Suffolk, and 37.4°C in Kew Gardens, west London, making it the hottest day of the year, while the mercury topped 37°C in a number of other places.

An expected increase to 40°C on Tuesday would shatter the previous record of 38.7°C set in Cambridge three years ago and add to the concern of scientists who say climate change is making such events more likely.

In southern Europe, the heatwave has brought wildfires and temperatures of up to 46°C in Spain, France and Portugal. In Spain, a member of the fire service died on Sunday while battling to extinguish forest fires.

Met Office CEO Penelope Endersby said: “Forty-one isn’t off the cards. We’ve even got some 43s in the model, but we’re hoping it won’t be as high as that.”

Chief meteorologist at the Met Office Paul Davies said the weather charts he had seen on Monday were unlike any he had observed in his 30-year career.

“This is entirely consistent with climate change. To get 40°C in the UK we need that additional boost from human-induced climate,” he said.

“The speed at which we are seeing these exceptionally high temperatures is broadly in line with what we were saying but to be honest, as a meteorologist, to see the brutality of the heat we're expecting tomorrow, is quite astounding.”

“And it does worry me a lot and my colleagues here at the Met Office that this sort of unprecedented heat could become a regular occurrence by the end of the century.”

Nikos Christidis, a climate attribution expert at the Met Office, said: ““The chances of seeing 40°C days in the UK could be as much as 10 times more likely in the current climate than under a natural climate unaffected by human influence.”

The death of the teenager at Ovingham, Northumberland, is one of a number of tragedies in water-related incidents during the sunny weather, including a 16-year-old boy in Salford Quays, Greater Manchester, a 16-year-old boy in Bray Lake near Maidenhead, Berkshire, and a 50-year-old man in a reservoir near Leeds.

UK unprepared for heatwave

Cabinet minister Kit Malthouse said people should consider working from home if they can, while those who did brave the London Underground found services reduced because of speed restrictions on lines.

Network Rail said there would be a “skeleton service” on one of Britain's main north-south arteries on Tuesday because of the possibility that railway lines will buckle in the heat.

Millions choice to work from home to avoid the travel disruption and unpleasant office conditions. Location technology firm TomTom said road congestion at 9am was lower in most UK cities than at the same time last week.

“The forecast temperatures are well above those which our infrastructure is designed [for], and safety must come first,” said Network Rail's operations director Sam MacDougall.

Amid concern for the welfare of older Britons, Mr Malthouse said people should “do the neighbourly thing” and check on elderly people to make sure they have enough water.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said the emergency services were already starting to see an increased volume of calls despite the peak not likely to strike until Tuesday afternoon.

Few homes in Britain have air conditioning, because cold has historically been more of a problem than heat.

“Thousands of people did die” during a 2003 heatwave in France, Mr Malthouse told LBC radio.

“We are not used to this kind of heat and we just need to make sure that we are sensible and moderate and take care during the next 48 hours,” he said.

Some schools have decided to close because of the heatwave, while hospitals have said some appointments might be postponed as the hot weather coincides with an increase in coronavirus infections.

Asked whether the government supported closing schools, England's deputy chief medical officer Thomas Waite said “head teachers know their building best”.

“Obviously some buildings are easier to keep cool than others. And for many children, actually it might be cooler and easier to get out and keep yourself sort of well hydrated and in the fresh air,” he said.

Lord Victor Adebowale, the chairman of the NHS Confederation, said some British hospital buildings dated back to the 18th century and had not been upgraded during the past decade of spending restraints.

Heatwave response divides opinion

The unprecedented forecasts in Britain have brought out disagreement between those sounding the alarm over the extreme heat and others who say the country ought to calm down.

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab was criticised by some for telling Sky News on Sunday that people should “enjoy the sunshine … we ought to be resilient enough through some of the pressures it will place”.

And Prime Minister Boris Johnson, soon to leave office, raised eyebrows by sitting out a meeting of the government's emergency committee, Cobra, where the heatwave was discussed.

Labour front-bencher Lisa Nandy said the prime minister had “clearly clocked off … we think the government ought to do a number of things, the first is to turn up to work”.

But Mr Malthouse said this criticism was “very unfair” and that chairing Cobra was part of his remit.

Britain coping with heat through the years - in pictures

Updated: July 18, 2022, 3:41 PM