A big freeze is heading towards Britain which could 'kill one person every seven minutes', according to a charity.

The cold snap could put thousands of lives at risk, especially the elderly, very young and infirm.

The big chill has already hit Scotland, the north of England and the south-west. The Pennines, Cotswolds and the Chilterns had snow showers, with gritters out in force to deal with icy roads.

Weather forecasters say that snow is set to spread across the UK, with some areas receiving up to 10cm over the weekend.

The Met Office predicted that temperatures could drop to -6C – or 21F – in rural areas.

Age UK's charity director Caroline Abrahams said freezing conditions could put almost a million elderly people at risk if they cannot afford to heat their homes. She warned the cold caused heart attacks, strokes and breathing problems.

"The cold weather can be particularly dangerous for older people who are more at risk of suffering health problems when the temperature drops," she told the Daily Mail.

"It's a shocking fact that this winter one older person could die every seven minutes from the cold.

"With just under one million older people living in fuel poverty, many simply cannot afford to heat their homes to a temperature high enough to keep warm and well.

"We are calling for the Government to commit to improving the energy efficiency of homes across the country in order to provide a long-lasting solution to the scandal of fuel poverty and preventable winter deaths."

The Met Office warned: "Icy roads are likely to make for difficult driving conditions in many areas. Colder conditions could stay for most of next week."

Around 40,000 more people die between December and March in the UK than would be expected from death rates during other times of the year, according to figures from the Faculty of Public Health and the Met Office.

Each winter, a larger proportion of Britons die because of unseasonable cold weather than in either Finland or Russia.

"The UK remains one of the worst countries in the world at coping with unseasonable low temperatures," said Professor Sian Griffiths, president of the Faculty of Public Health.