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Armed forces were called in to clear snow in Edinburgh during the previous cold spell

Temperatures are plummeting across the UK with widespread ice and snow set to return, according to forecasters.

Met Office warnings are in place throughout the country and up to 20cm (8in) of snow could fall in parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The BBC's Tomasz Schafernaker said ice would make driving “very dangerous” by Thursday evening's rush hour.

Scotland's new transport minister has insisted the country is “very well prepared” for the new cold spell.

Keith Brown's predecessor Stewart Stevenson resigned after his department was criticised for its handling of the problems caused by the previous bout of severe weather.

“We've learnt significant lessons from last week,” Mr Brown said.

'Icy blast'
Met Office weather warnings of widespread ice are in place for the bulk of the UK on Thursday and Friday.

There are also warnings of heavy snow in Orkney and Shetland, the Highlands and Western Isles, Grampian, and Northern Ireland.

Mr Schafernaker said: “There's certainly a big icy blast on the way and it's going to last for a few days.

“Whether it's going to be worse than the previous one… well, the point is that areas that really didn't see an awful lot last time may get a fair bit of snow and icy conditions this time.”

Get the latest on travel problems via your local website

Check if snow is forecast in your area at BBC Weather

Details of motorway and local road closures and public transport disruption are available at BBC Travel News

For advice on handling difficult driving conditions, see the Highways Agency website

For information about severe weather warnings, see the Met Office website

For information about staying healthy in the cold weather, see the NHS Winter Health website

A band of rain, sleet and snow is moving south across the UK and behind it temperatures will drop rapidly and widespread ice will form.

Parts of Scotland are already affected and forecasters said ice could cause significant problems during the rush hours on Thursday evening and Friday morning.

“This is Arctic air coming in very rapidly through this afternoon after the rain passes, so all of that wet on the ground [is] just going to freeze,” Mr Schafernaker said.

“It's almost like glazed ice, so surfaces will be coated with a invisible coating, especially on the roads, so that'll be very, very dangerous for motorists, especially during [Friday] morning.”

Snow showers are also expected in Scotland, Northern Ireland, parts of Wales, south-west England and eastern coasts of England from Thursday afternoon. By Saturday, another band of snow is forecast to move east across England and Wales.

The BBC weather centre said 5-10cm (2-4in) of snow was likely and up to 20cm (8in) was possible in some places. The snow will drift in strong winds.

'Snow teams'
Bad weather is already causing disruption to train services in Scotland, with cancellations on some ScotRail routes. Flights to and from Kirkwall airport are also affected, and some schools have closed in Shetland, Orkney and Aberdeenshire.

Motoring organisation the AA said it had extra patrols on stand-by, but police in one area, County Durham, said they had seen a spate of weather-related accidents already.

“The return of snow and ice seems to have caught drivers unaware this morning,” a force spokesman said.

Network Rail also said it had “snow teams in place” and would be “keeping equipment in strategic locations”.

A spokesman said: “The main issue we could be facing is ice so we are monitoring temperatures carefully, particularly in the south-east where the third rail is – that's where ice causes most problems because it stops power getting from the third rail to the trains.”

Meanwhile, bookmakers have slashed the odds of a white Christmas.

One company, Coral, says the odds have never been shorter – currently 5/4 in London, 4/5 in Aberdeen, 6/5 in Belfast and 11/8 in Cardiff.

But the BBC weather centre said that although forecasters were confident it would stay cold, it was too early to tell where any snow would fall on Christmas Day itself.

Heavy snowfall during the past few weeks has caused huge disruption, especially in Scotland and north-east England.

Airports, roads and schools were closed, and companies are now warning of a backlog of deliveries which may not reach customers before Christmas.

A number of firms, including Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda, have halted orders or suspended deliveries to Scotland because of the prolonged bad weather.