Britain feels the heat as it braces for record 40C heatwave

Record-breaking temperatures across parts of the UK caused disruption to travel, schools, hospitals and the electricity grid on Monday, as infrastructure experts and climate change scientists called on the government to plan better for extreme weather.

Temperatures peaked at 37C across much of London and the south-west of England with Wales recording its hottest day on record at 37.1C in Hawarden, Flintshire with the first ever “level four” heat alert in place for the first two days of the week.

Kit Malthouse, the Cabinet Office minister, warned it was likely to get even hotter on Tuesday with weather forecasters predicting the previous UK record of 38.7C, set in 2019, would be broken.

“Temperatures are forecast to reach the low-40s centigrade, it looks probable that they will break the current UK record,” he told the House of Commons on Monday.

The severe heat led to a warning from National Grid that there was less electricity generating capacity than expected to meet demand on Monday night due in part to the lower output from gas-fired power plants, which are less efficient in the heat and are the mainstay of the system. The reduction in output led to traders paying record prices to import electricity from the Netherlands.

Luton airport, north of London, was temporarily forced to close its runway after “surface defects” appeared in the tarmac; and train companies across the UK either cancelled services or ran at reduced speeds because of the risk of rails buckling in the heat.

The struggle to keep transport moving and hospitals and schools functioning raised questions about whether government planning is adequate to cope with the predicted long-term rise in temperatures caused by climate change.

Nigel Arnell, professor of climate system science at the University of Reading, said European countries including the UK “really need to up the game” in terms of resilience but added it would require co-ordination across government departments and the private sector.

“Whilst the individual technical and behavioural solutions are relatively straightforward, progress is limited because responsibilities for action are spread across departments, agencies, private sector organisations and individuals,” he said.

Luton airport had to halt flights after the heat damaged the runway © BBC

The Climate Change Committee, the British government’s main adviser on environmental issues, has consistently highlighted the risks from rising temperatures to buildings, energy and transport infrastructure. The top 10 warmest years for the UK since 1884 have all occurred since 2002.

The government is due to publish a national resilience strategy later this year based a report by the National Infrastructure Commission in May 2020, which called for “resilience standards” to be set every five years for each sector.

Sir John Armitt, the chair of the NIC, said that as much of the infrastructure was owned and controlled by private companies it was crucial to ensure regulators had the powers to enforce the new standards.

“We have called for transparent standards, so that customers are clear what they can expect, allied to regulators with a remit to ensure companies build a certain level of resilience,” he said

Contingency measures put in place to deal with the high temperatures led to significant delays and some line closures across the UK rail network and London Underground as trains were forced to run slower on tracks that were designed to handle maximum temperatures of 35 degrees.

Many commuters had heeded warnings to stay at home, with data from location-technology specialist TomTom showing traffic levels in major cities including London and Birmingham were below those recorded a week earlier.

Network Rail said train passenger numbers were 20 per cent below the same time last week. It urged people not to travel by rail unless “absolutely necessary” and announced it planned to partially close the East Coast mainline, which links London to cities in northern England and Scotland, on Tuesday afternoon.

Network Rail said it could re-engineer the network to handle hotter temperatures, like in Spain, but this would leave it unable to handle extreme sub-zero temperatures in winter. “We have to strike the right balance as any railway can only be engineered for a specific temperature range,” it added.

As ambulance call-outs increased due to the heat, the NHS also came under strain with some hospitals cancelling operations and reducing visiting hours because older buildings did not have air-conditioning.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said that without long-term investment summers risked becoming “even more difficult for the NHS to navigate than winter”, which is traditionally when demands on the service peak.

Hot weather warning at Kings Cross station in London
Network Rail said many passengers had heeded the advice not to travel with numbers down 20% on Monday last week © Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Schools across England sent children home early, with teaching unions warning that many ageing buildings were poorly equipped for rising temperatures. The government estimates it would cost £11.4bn to modernise schools across the country.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said their buildings were not able to cope with both extremes of hot and cold, and urged greater capital investment.

Kit Knowles, boss of sustainable development company Ecospheric, warned that England’s 25mn homes — some of the oldest housing stock in the world — was equally ill-equipped to deal with high temperatures. “We’re the last to be really considering overheating as a critical aspect, mainly because we have a fairly temperate climate,” he said.

Water companies in England urged users to show restraint or face the growing risk of hosepipe bans later in the year.

But Roger Kemp, emeritus professor at Lancaster University and fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said that part of resilience was accepting that, on some days given the increasingly extreme temperature, it could not be business as usual.

“There’s this view that we mustn’t let the climate change our normal way of life, but other countries take a more reasonable approach,” said “If we got rid of this view, it would just be normal, ‘it’s summer, it’s hot, so let’s change our work patterns’.”

FT Reporting team: Peter Foster, Jim Pickard, Philip Georgiadis, Camilla Hodgson, Bethan Staton, Sarah Neville, Nathalie Thomas, Gill Plimmer and George Hammond

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