UK heatwave: Britain has hottest day as temperatures soar above 40ºC

Met Office records new high of 40.2ºC at Heathrow Airport as heat melts roads, brings trains to a standstill and leads to power cuts

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Britain sweltered during its hottest day on Tuesday as temperatures surpassed 40ºC for the first time in recorded history, sparking wildfires that engulfed suburban homes in London.

The Met Office announced a new high of 40.2ºC at London's Heathrow Airport as the extreme weather melted roads, brought trains to a standstill and led to power cuts.

The London Fire Brigade has declared a major incident due to "a huge surge" in blazes across the capital amid the extreme heat. About 100 firefighters tackled blazes in the village of Wennington, east London, on Tuesday afternoon, and another outbreak in Pinner.

Footage showed flames and smoke from a grass fire billowing over a road in Wennington, setting houses and a church alight. Five people were believed to have died after encountering difficulty in rivers, reservoirs and canals.

The previous record of 38.7ºC was beaten before noon as temperatures in England climbed from 25ºC at night — also unheard of — to a scorching new high in a country not used to brutal heat.

"I wasn’t expecting to see this in my career," said Met Office chief scientist Stephen Belcher.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told his Cabinet that "no one could doubt" it was right for Britain to pursue a greener future, as experts sounded the alarm that climate change will make such extremes more likely.

But environmental campaign group Greenpeace bemoaned the lack of interest from Conservative leadership candidates in talking about climate change, saying the "life-threatening heat is just a taster of what's to come".

Speaking exactly a year since most coronavirus restrictions were lifted in the UK, Mr Johnson said Britain should "balance risk with the need to keep our country, our society and our economy moving".

Europe feels the heat

In mainland Europe, forest fires were raging in Spain, France and Portugal and temperatures were heading for possible records in parts of Belgium and Germany as the heatwave edged east.

About 34,000 people have left their homes in the French countryside surrounding Bordeaux and firefighters were battling to contain the region's biggest wildfires for more than 30 years.

In Spain, a man trying to protect his town from fire had a close brush with death when the blaze engulfed his digger, forcing him to run for his life while patting out flames on his clothes. Almost 600 heat-related deaths have been reported in Spain and Portugal.

Europe's Copernicus monitoring service said tinder-dry conditions were exacerbating the risk of wildfires and said ozone pollution was rising to unhealthy levels, particularly over Spain, Portugal and northern parts of Italy.

In Britain, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps conceded that the country's Victorian-era rail network "just wasn't built to withstand this kind of temperature", as trains drove slow because of the risks of tracks buckling.

The hottest railway track reached 62ºC in Suffolk, England, Network Rail said, while journeys on the London Underground were down by 30 per cent as many people stayed at home.

Power went down to hundreds of homes in the north of England and there were warnings of pressure on ambulance services from the extreme temperatures.

Health service official Miriam Deakin said some planned surgeries had to be cancelled because operating theatres were too hot and that hospitals were trying to cool down banks of computers. Some people turned to household fans in a country where few homes have air conditioning.

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Queen Elizabeth II, 96, carried on her royal duties from the safety of inside Windsor Castle by welcoming new American ambassador Jane Hartley.

There had been little respite overnight as temperatures stayed at 25ºC or higher in parts of England. The previous night-time record was 23.9ºC in Brighton in 1990.

The previous record high of 38.7ºC, set in Cambridge in 2019, was gone by lunchtime as the warm night gave way to a second sweltering day. An interim high of 39.1ºC south of London was soon eclipsed by the 40ºC mark being beaten.

The Met Office said 40ºC weather might already be 10 times more likely than it would be in an undamaged climate, and that it could become more frequent in decades to come.

The extreme heat made Britain hotter than Jamaica, the Maldives and Barbados, but was expected to ease off on Wednesday.

Most rail routes across England and Wales were affected by the hot weather on Tuesday, according to National Rail, with customers told to travel only if “absolutely necessary”.

Ms Ayers said: “There are likely to be delays on roads, with road closures, as well as possible delays and cancellations to trains and maybe issues with air travel.

“This could pose a significant health risk to those stuck on services or roads during the heat.”

The cross-country route from London to York was closed because of the heat, along with commuter trains north of London, and services were reduced in the south, west, in London and on Merseyside.

Elsewhere, council grit spreaders were on stand-by to spread light dustings of sand on melting roads. The automotive services company the RAC said that the number of vehicle breakdowns could be up to a fifth higher than normal.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs put high pollution alert in place in the eastern parts of England and the East Midlands, meaning European ozone pollution thresholds have been exceeded.

Water companies have been experiencing “unprecedented peak demand”, with people encouraged to “carefully consider” their water use and urged not to waste it.

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Police said two boys were in hospital, one of them in a critical condition, after being pulled from the sea at Blackpool. Another 14-year-old boy drowned on Monday afternoon after getting into difficulty in the Thames in west London.

Emergency services also confirmed the deaths of a 16-year-old boy in Salford Quays, Greater Manchester, a 16-year-old boy in Bray Lake near Maidenhead, Berkshire, a 13-year-old boy in Northumberland, and a man, 50, in a reservoir near Leeds in similar circumstances in recent days.

The UK Health Security Agency issued a Level 4 heat-health alert — described as an “emergency” — and Britain was under its first red extreme heat warning for a large part of England, issued by the Met Office.

Updated: July 19, 2022, 10:21 PM
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