Extreme heat puts life on hold in Britain, a land not built for it

LONDON — Trains slowed to a crawl. Schools and medical practices have closed. The British Museum has closed its galleries. Buckingham Palace has cut the changing of the guard short. And the government has urged people to work from home.

Much of Britain took an involuntary siesta on Monday as unforgiving heat filtered north from a fire-ravaged continent of Europe, bringing temperatures close to triple digits Fahrenheit in many parts and hitting the highest mark. hot ever recorded in Wales.

Authorities have placed most of the country under a ‘red’ heat warning for the first time in history, with mercury hovering around 100 degrees (37.5 degrees Celsius) across London and the South and Midlands from the country. Britain’s best read, 100.6 degrees Fahrenheit (38.1 degrees Celsius)didn’t quite reach the record of 101.7 set in Cambridge in July 2019, but for a sweltering nation it felt like a distinction without difference.

On London’s stuffy Underground – most lines are not air-conditioned – Georgia McQuade, 22, dragged a heavy suitcase as she made her way to Victoria Coach Station, where she planned to catch a bus back to Paris.

“The Tube is really hot right now,” Ms. McQuade said. But she added: “I don’t want to take an Uber because using so many cars is what caused this heat in the first place.”

She expected to encounter even fiercer temperatures in Paris as a mass of hot air scorched Italy and Spain over the past week and stoked wildfires in France and other parts of Europe, before spreading across the English Channel.

On Monday, French firefighters were battling two huge wildfires that had ravaged 55 square miles of dry pine forest in southwestern France over the past week, forcing around 16,000 people to evacuate.

For Britain, a nation known for its flowing clouds, frequent downpours and temperate climate, the heat from Arizona’s blast furnace was enough to disrupt much of the country. He even interfered in the political debate during an election campaign.

In the United States and other countries more accustomed to it, such heat could hardly register. But essential infrastructure in these climates, from schools to public transport to private homes, has been designed to cope with it, and people’s bodies have become more acclimatized to it.

In Britain, houses, especially older ones, were built to conserve heat and their inhabitants are similarly equipped. Britons, in fact, are unprepared for extreme weather of any kind – whether winter blizzards or summer showers – and the flickering heat of the pavements is no exception.

Some train services were canceled while others operated at reduced speeds for fear the tracks would warp. Luton Airport, north London, closed briefly after heat caused a ‘fault’ in the runway, forcing flights, some from Mediterranean resorts, to divert to other airports.

In London, the cast iron chains and plinths of the Hammersmith Bridge over the Thames were wrapped in reflective foil to protect them from the sun. Previous heat waves had caused cracks in the iron to widen, raising fears that the majestic but corroded 19th-century bridge could collapse.

A 14-year-old boy went missing on Monday night and allegedly drowned while swimming in the River Thames, according to the London Police Service, as thousands of people defied warnings and flocked to bodies of water to escape the heat.

The Royal Air Force halted flights to and from its largest base as a precaution, a spokesman said, because tar on the runway may have melted. Alternate airfields were being used and Air Force operations were not affected, he added.

Officials have urged people to use public transport only if necessary and to work from home on Monday and Tuesday – a plea reminiscent of the depths of the coronavirus pandemic. But few homes have air conditioning, leaving millions to choose between a scorching commute or a stuffy home office.

“Our immediate concern is to ensure that the country goes through the next 36 hours in as good a condition as possible,” said Kit Malthouse, the cabinet minister overseeing the government’s response. Forecasters warned Tuesday would be even hotter, again putting records at risk.

Mr Malthouse defended Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who stayed at his country residence, Checkers, and skipped cabinet crisis meetings. Mr Malthouse said he was briefing Mr Johnson, who announced his resignation after losing his party’s support two weeks ago, of the latest developments.

With the Conservative Party in the midst of a vociferous leadership race to replace Mr Johnson, time has inevitably played into politics. Regardless of the weather, however, tackling climate change is way down the priority list.

Britain’s cost of living crisis has, for now at least, sidelined the country’s ambitious targets to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. During a televised debate , four of the five candidates expressed only lukewarm approvals of the policy while one expressed open doubts.

Prince Charles, heir to the throne of Britain and a fervent climate change campaigner, jumped into the debate, saying on Monday that “these commitments around net zero have never been more vital as we all suffocate under the today’s alarming record temperatures in Britain and Europe. ”

Extremely high temperatures are becoming more common around the world, and climate scientists say the burning of fossil fuels is a big driver. Some of the recent extreme heat events the world has experienced would have been virtually impossible without the influence of human-induced climate change, scientists have found.

Some critics say Britons usually overreact to extreme weather conditions. In February, nine rail companies canceled services when Storm Eunice hit the country with snow, rain and winds of up to 90 miles per hour. Planes, buses and ferries were also disrupted.

Yet on Monday most Britons were coping with the heat in tried fashion.

Retailers in Britain have reported soaring demand for fans and air conditioning units. A spokeswoman for John Lewis, one of Britain’s biggest department stores, said on Sunday that sales of ventilators had risen more than 250% in the past week, compared to the same period a year earlier, and that the air conditioner sales had increased more than 525. percent.

There is little data on how many homes in England have air conditioning, but best estimates put it at less than 5%, according to a 2021 report from the UK Department for Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Hospitals and nursing homes were of particular concern, officials said, with many elderly and vulnerable patients in buildings without air conditioning. Officials urged schools, during their last week of classes before a break, not to close because it would leave children unsupervised in the heat — a directive some school districts were ignoring.

For the most part, however, Britons endured it all with stoicism. Mona Suleiman, 45, and her friend, Zaina Al Amin, 40, waited for a bus in the afternoon sun and watched the temperature steadily rise.

“I’m not worried about me in this heat,” said Ms Suleiman, from Eritrea. “But I worry about my children.”

Her flat is getting too hot, she says, and although she was advised to keep her 6- and 10-year-olds home after summer school, she decided to send them because she thought could be cooler there.

Ms Al Amin said she and Ms Suleiman, who wore traditional Eritrean clothes and headscarves, did not mind the heat in their light cotton clothes. But they were afraid to get on the bus. “It’s too difficult,” she said. “There is not enough air.”

Others in London seemed less embarrassed, such as the four artists painting graffiti on a mural outside the Trellick Tower, a high-rise apartment building. “It’s nothing, mate,” said one. “I’ll be back here tomorrow.”

For a few Londoners, the answer was to head for the beach. Sam Darlaston and Imogen Duffin took a midday train from Victoria Station to the seaside resort of Brighton. The friends, both 28, had made the impulsive decision to take the day off an hour before the train departed.

Mr Darlaston, a radio host wearing a Hawaiian-themed shirt, said he was glad he wasn’t back in a stuffy studio. “I thought maybe I should work,” he said, “and sometimes at work you have to wear pants and a shirt, if you’re interviewing somebody.”

The report was provided by Megan Specia, Stephen’s Castle, Euan district and Derrick Bryson Taylor in London, Constant Meheut and Aurelien Breeden in Paris, and saskia solomon in Brighton, England.

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