Workers gritting Irish roads are suffering abuse from the public

The big freeze is set to cost the economy around €2bn, as chaotic conditions take a drastic toll on consumer activity and productivity.

As the country braced itself for further blizzards of snow later today, Friends First economist Jim Power said the crisis was costing around €500m a week. "If this weather lasts for a month it could easily take €2bn out of the economy in terms of loss of spending and productivity," he said.

Meanwhile, workers struggling to grit Irish roads are reported to be suffering serious abuse from irate members of the public, and staff are being briefed on how to deal with it.

The ongoing deterioration in the weather has led to dangerous road surfaces, airport closures, frozen crops, high levels of personal injuries and a mass shortage of road grit.

Authorities may be forced to close roads as salt supplies run out.

Met éireann said that the middle of this week will see a slight improvement in temperatures but "it won't be enough to prevent ongoing problems with frost, ice and lying snow".

With no let-up in sight, the bad weather also means a big freeze in spending; retailers are now estimating an unprecedented 20% drop-off in activity.

"It has been a disaster since New Year's Day and the weather has kept a lot of people away from the sales," said Power.

"The longer [consumer activity] is postponed the less likely it is to happen. From that point of view I don't think it's a postponement of spending, I think it's a cancellation of spending.

"And people are typically working shorter hours because it takes them longer to get in and out so productivity is seriously down.

"For the economy, it couldn't have come at a worse time. We began to see in December there was a bit of a bounce back in spending but this will not go into January now."

Higher household fuel bills will also translate to lower spending in other areas.

Irish Small and Medium Enterprise (Isme) chief executive Mark Fielding added: "It's almost the perfect storm; we have had everything from a global downturn to floods and snow."

Rough estimates are putting decreases in retail spending across their members at up to 20%. "We are waiting to get the full story but I don't think we have ever seen that before," said Fielding.

Both Dublin City Council and a company looking after gritting the M50 said staff have been on the receiving end of serious public abuse.

Paul Nolan, who operates a gritting depot on Marrowbone Lane, said: "People only see what they want to see; they are only seeing their own road. But we have to get the main routes first. If you cut a tree at the trunk, the rest dies. It is a matter of priority when we are this short."

Transport minister Noel Dempsey was unable to return yesterday from his Maltese holiday after his flight to Dublin was cancelled. Dem­p­sey left the country on Tuesday and told the Sunday Tribune yesterday that he had decided to return once it became clear on Thursday that the weather was set to worsen over the weekend. "It was not much of a holiday", he said. "I was keeping up to date with the situation in Ireland". He criticised opposition politicians for "grandstanding" over his absence.

The NRA said yesterday it was confident that it would have enough grit to cope with the bad conditions forecast for the next few days. Twenty-two thousand tones of salt has been ordered from suppliers and is expected to arrive in Ireland imminently. The Authority also said it was confident that "most national roads" would stay open.