Snow chaos: Embattled Hammond defends govt response

Whitehall in the snow: The weather was threatening political represcussions as well today.
Whitehall in the snow: The weather was threatening political represcussions as well today.

By Ian Dunt

The transport secretary has defended the government's response to the freezing conditions hitting Britain's infrastructure.

With chaos continuing at Heathrow and snowy conditions warned in much of the country, Phillip Hammond told MPs that the road and rail networks had responded as well as could be expected to the extreme weather.

He insisted the government would be "taking whatever action is needed" to help clear the travel chaos.

But he admitted the government had been "caught off guard" by its severity, even if the government had taken the reasonable steps to prepare.

The transport secretary did however single out the "unacceptable" events at Heathrow airport, saying the airport operators should have been more pro-active in cancelling flights and saying that "lessons would be learned".

Adding that he understood the "frustration" of passengers stuck at airports and stations throughout the UK, Mr Hammond took the opportunity to announce that restrictions on night flights would be eased to relieve some of the backlog.

The statement came as shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle called on him to "get a grip".

She argued the government was "woefully ill-prepared for winter". Of the events at Heathrow, she told the Commons it "just isn't good enough to pass this off as a private sector problem... passengers have every right to feel abandoned by this government."

Ms Eagle was particularly critical at the government's alleged failure to provide adequate information to stranded transport users.

The transport secretary hit back at suggestions he was running the "official department for chaos", however, accusing Labour of a "dump of political opportunism" to match the weekend's dump of snow. He also pointed out that the previous government had failed to supply sufficient grit during last Winter.

Just before his statement, Mr Hammond updated the Commons on plans for high-speed rail, leading to sarcastic comments from MPs.

Referring to the "rising tide of criticism over the transport chaos groipping the country", Ms Eagle said: "It is unfortunate he's scheduled to update the House on high speed travel when most people would settle for any travel at all."

There was growing anger at the virtual shut-down at Heathrow, with hundreds of thousands of travellers having their Christmas plans ruined.

Mr Hammond warned that air travel was a "safety-first" business, but there were questions about why the weather had hit the airport so badly when others around the country were open and functioning.

In a series of interviews today, he distanced himself from management at Heathrow.

"Once we have got through the problem, once we have got things moving again, then we will have to have that discussion and find out exactly what went wrong and, most importantly, what went wrong in handling passengers who were stranded," he said.

"I think whilst people are obviously deeply upset about the inconvenience, particularly at this time of year, of having their travel plans disrupted, most of what I am hearing is a sense of outrage about the way they were then treated when they were stranded at Heathrow airport.

"We don't own the airports and we don't own the airlines but we do liaise with them. Both Heathrow and Gatwick airports had full stocks of de-icing fluid. They had all the equipment in place that they planned to have so it wasn't that they didn't have the stuff there."

The travel disruption prevented George Osborne from returning from New York to London where he was due to meet Vince Cable and bank bosses. The meeting was cancelled.

Meanwhile, one man in Essex died after falling through ice into a lake.


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