LONDON (Reuters) - Blizzards swept across central and southern England on Wednesday, bringing more road and rail chaos and forcing airports and hundreds of schools to close.
The Met Office issued severe weather warnings across the entire country, predicting that up to 40 cm of snow (16 inches) could fall in parts of the south and Greater London by the end of Wednesday.
If, as forecast, the extreme weather continues until Saturday the disruption could cost the UK economy up to 2 billion pounds ($3.20 billion).
Stephen Alambritis, of the Federation of Small Businesses, estimated 10 percent of the nation's 30 million-strong workforce missed work on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"That is a cost to the UK economy of 600 million pounds per day...but it reduces as the days go by because people find inventive ways of getting in or work from home," he told Reuters.
"The cost is trade lost obviously, sales down, absence from work -- staff still need to be paid -- cancelled meetings, orders not satisfied or delayed, so there are a number of issues," he said.
After the north of England and Scotland were worst-hit by the freeze on Tuesday, much of southern England was badly affected on Wednesday.
Forecasters said Hampshire, Oxfordshire, west Berkshire, Surrey and Buckinghamshire saw "exceptionally heavy snowfall" as the blizzards moved south.
They said between 15cm and 30cm (6in and 12in) of snow was expected, but there could be in excess of 40cm (16in) in the worst-hit areas.
It warned that the poor weather would continue into Thursday with more snow and the freezing weather making travelling treacherous.
"Tonight will be mostly dry, however lows of -8 C will lead to very icy conditions in all parts," said Bob Wilderspin, Met Office Chief Forecaster.
The Met Office said the cold snap, the worst in 30 years, would continue into the middle of the month with more snowfall in the south and east.
Close to a 1,000 motorists were trapped in their cars on the A3 overnight in Hampshire, with many others forced to abandon their vehicles in the rest of the county as snow drifts made roads impassable.
The Highways Agency advised motorists not to travel unless their journey was essential.
"Continuous salt treatment and snow ploughing is taking place on the motorways and major A roads we manage in England during the continuing severe weather conditions," the Agency said.
"Where incidents have occurred, our traffic officers and maintenance teams are working with the police to re-open routes as soon as it is safe to do so."
London's Gatwick Airport was closed on Wednesday afternoon to clear snow from the runway while flights in and out of Heathrow suffered delays and cancellations.
Passengers were advised to check with their airline before leaving for the airports.
Luton and Stansted airports were both forced to close, while other regional airports were also affected.
Rail operators have announced reduced services and delays including East Coast, East Midlands, Chiltern Railways, First Great Western, National Express East Anglia, South West Trains, Southeastern and Southern Trains.
Meanwhile hundreds of schools have been forced to close, with Lancashire, West Yorkshire, the West Midlands, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire and Surrey worst hit.