Confusion over severe weather warnings during the “Beast from the East” snowfall could lead to changes to the system, transport minister Humza Yousaf has told MSPs.
The first top-level Met Office red warning for snow in Scotland for eight years was triggered by the worst snowfall for two decades on February 28.
It caused widespread transport disruption, with hundreds of drivers stranded overnight on the M80 between Glasgow and Stirling.
Mr Yousaf said there had been confusion over lesser amber – “be prepared” – warnings which were in force before and after the red – “take action” – alert.
He described these as “severe amber” warnings – and said they were more significant than other amber warnings issued for snow in January.
The difference is because amber warnings vary in severity depending on which point they are in the matrix used to calculate them. This is based on a combination of the likelihood and expected impact of bad weather.
The minister told MSPs on the rural economy and connectivity committee: “I was very aware that when the warning went from red to amber, people thought everything would be OK. Even when it went from amber to yellow [“be aware”], we still faced challenges.”
Mr Yousaf said the authorities had tried to issue more “aligned” warnings when the Beast from the East hit because those put out for the January snowfall had been too numerous and confusing.
Bus operators agreed the warnings could have been communicated better.
George Mair, director of the Confederation of Passenger Transport Scotland, said: “There appeared to be different understandings about the warnings.”
He suggested adopting a numerical scale that is used in several European countries.
Despite the chaos, Mr Yousaf said closing the M80 would have made things worse.
He said it would have transferred traffic to smaller roads which would have been more difficult to keep clear of snow.
Freeing vehicles and rescuing people would also have been harder. He said: “It was utterly relentless. We just had constant blizzard conditions. There simply was no let-up.”
The minister also repeated that it was unacceptable that people had had their pay docked for not travelling to work in the snow.
However, he acknowledged: “Employers might not know how to handle that – let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency, which is responsible for trunk roads like the M80, said: “The transport minister is keen that government, Police Scotland and others learn lessons from weather events this winter season to improve the resilience effort during similar conditions in the future.”