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‘Furnace Friday:’ Ill-Equipped for Heat, Britain Has a Meltdown

LONDON — To the casual observer, it may seem as if Britain is completely unprepared to deal with long spells of scorching-hot weather.

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Ceylan Yeginsu
, New York Times

LONDON — To the casual observer, it may seem as if Britain is completely unprepared to deal with long spells of scorching-hot weather.

The casual observer would be mostly right.

The monthlong heat wave has broken records, spawned wildfires in Wales and England, spurred delays in the transportation system and given birth to names like “Furnace Friday,” as Britons tried to find ways to describe this puzzling pain.

“Shops are out of fans, ice, sun cream, ice cream, and there’s a water shortage that has left our beautiful, lush parks all parched and yellow,” said Lucy Thornton, 36, an interior designer, as she walked into a west London cafe Friday in search of cold water.

“We’re not equipped for this,” she added, “so it feels kind of apocalyptic.”

Summer started out with unusually good weather: The rain stopped, the skies cleared, and the sun came out. Some Britons were so delighted that they canceled vacations abroad.

Then came the heat.

Unlike other European countries that are accustomed to coping with hot weather, Britain had what others saw as a meltdown because it generally lacks the infrastructure and resources to deal with the effects of long spells of high temperatures.

Air-conditioning is a luxury here. Not only do most homes not have it, but they are built to keep the heat in, experts say. As a result, the demand for fans has skyrocketed, leaving most stores in London out of stock.

That apocalyptic feeling was shared by Eurotunnel travelers, after thousands of tickets were canceled because of lightning, fires and air-conditioners buckled by the extreme heat, according to local reports.

On Thursday, a high temperature of 35.1 degrees Celsius, or 95.2 degrees Fahrenheit, was recorded in Surrey, in southern England — the highest in Britain this year.

Amid severe train delays, Eurostar passengers at London’s St. Pancras Station waited Friday for more than two hours in lines that stretched outside the train station.

“We had to wait for over an hour and a woman in front of me with a baby fainted,” recalled Amelia Walker, who was traveling to Paris. “Because people aren’t used to this heat, they’re not keeping hydrated.”

A day before, rush hour subway passengers traveling on London’s crowded Central Line likened the experience to a “hellhole.”

When the train doors opened at one stop, disoriented people spilled out, drenched in sweat. One woman poured a bottle of water over her head as soon as she got out, and another man ripped off his shirt as he clambered up the stairs to escape the crowds.

“It’s 2018, and it’s the busiest line. How does it not have air conditioning?” asked Mary Forester as she fanned herself with a newspaper outside Tottenham Court Road Station on Friday afternoon. “It’s beyond unpleasant; it’s really dangerous.”

The heat has also exacerbated London’s toxic air pollution levels, prompting the mayor, Sadiq Khan, to issue a warning Thursday.

“The heat, combined with London’s toxic air, a lack of cloud cover and emissions traveling from the Continent means I am triggering a ‘high’ air pollution alert today, for tomorrow, under our comprehensive alert system,” Khan said in a statement.

“This is the second time in six months that we have had to use the ‘high’ alert system and shows just why air pollution is a public health crisis,” he added.

The combination of heat and high pollution is also putting greater pressure on England’s emergency services, with some hospitals reporting a “summer crisis” amid record numbers of admissions for respiratory problems or symptoms caused by dehydration.

“The heat wave has meant that in some places at least, we’re back to winter conditions — in hospitals, community, mental health and ambulance services — and although fewer staff are off sick, there are more away on holiday,” said Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of National Health Service Providers.

“We have heard concerns about large numbers of people from care homes requiring treatment. This extra activity is leading to delays for patients requiring planned operations such as knee and hip replacements,” she added.

Demand for online heat-related health advice from the NHS has risen by almost 450 percent, according to statistics published by NHS Digital.

Hundreds of thousands of patients have sought advice for sunburn, and hundreds have been admitted to hospital to treat their burns, prompting Public Health England to urge people to “use common sense” and apply sunblock.

“You just don’t think to put on cream when you’re walking around London,” said Chloe Stenham, 33, wincing as she poked her bright red shoulders. “I think people are also just loving the fact that they don’t have to go on holiday to get a tan, so they are milking the opportunity.”

In London’s popular Covent Garden shopping and theater district, tourists appeared much better equipped to cope with the heat than Britons. Many of them wore hats and carried umbrellas, while residents exposed themselves directly to the sun.

“We’ve got to make the most of this; we just don’t know how long it’s going last,” said Crystal Baron as she sipped a pint of beer under the scorching sun. “It will be back to cold, wet gray gloom before we know it.”

Scientists at the World Weather Attribution network said Friday that evidence showed the current European heat wave was made twice as likely because of climate change, based on current and historical temperature data from weather stations and computer models.

A panel of lawmakers also warned this week that “killer heat waves” would become more common in Britain because of climate change. The Environmental Audit Committee warned that heat-related deaths would triple to 7,000 every year by 2050 if the government does not take action. Homes, hospitals and nursing homes that are designed to keep the heat in are also at risk of overheating, the committee found.

One of the biggest struggles during this heat wave has been getting a full night’s sleep. Many people have complained about being more tired and irritable, and less productive at work, because of the poor quality of their sleep.

But as Britain steamed, residents of other countries smirked. In Australia, the mockery was fierce.

“Being on this side of the world, I’m fully aware that everyone is laughing at the English. Look at them, with their ‘stifling’ heat, sun-baking in gardens and complaining that it’s just too hot to bear,” Abigail Malbon, a Briton working for Channel Nine TV in Australia, is quoted as saying in The London Times in an article headlined, “You call that a heat wave?” As for Stenham, who was nursing a sunburn, she said it felt as if her whole body was fire.

“I had a cold shower, slept without sheets, slept naked, but nothing works,” she said. “I never thought I’d say this, but we need some rain.”

Someone was listening. About 4:15 p.m. Friday, rain began to pour in London, catching some pedestrians without umbrellas, and the temperature dipped. The downpour soon eased to a drizzle, and Londoners seemed grateful for the respite.

The forecast for next week called for more rain, and temperatures that will creep back up.

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