What does it mean?
Most equipment and software contain microprocessors which rely on dates to function correctly. The millennium bug is the term used to describe the potential difficulties that computer and electronic equipment will have in handling the date change on 1 January 2000. The problem originated in the Sixties and Seventies when computer programmers, to save memory space, adopted the practice of referring to years by their last two digits rather than by all four: "98", rather than "1998".
As a consequence, some computers will not be able to tell the difference between the year 2000 and the year 1900, because both figures have 00 as their last two digits. This could mean that some computers and electronic equipment will produce meaningless information or fail at the millennium. Most new products contain chips that do recognise 2000.
What may be affected?
Time is ticking away inside personal computers, mainframes and electronic systems all over the world and, as most areas of modern life are affected by IT, no one knows how great the impact will be, which is why the Government is trying to get everyone to take preventative action.
Electronic equipment such as telephones, fax machines, photocopiers, fire alarms, security systems, medical equipment, air conditioning, heating systems, drainage, water, sewerage and lifts can all contain microprocessors which may be affected by the date change.
Organisations which depend on services such as water, gas and electricity may be affected by failures in their supply chain even if their own internal systems are 2000-compliant.
What you can do
Most problems will occur around the millennium date change. The Government has set up a scheme called Action 2000 to prepare businesses and consumers for the millennium. Call them for further advice on measures to be taken on 0845 6012000. Contact your employer, bank, insurer, GP and anyone else who holds computer records of your affairs and ask them how they will be tackling the problem.
Keep your financial papers in order for 1999.
Keep a record (dates and amounts) of wage payments, direct debits, mortgage repayments and policy renewal dates which you will be able to refer back to if you have a problem in 2000.
If you have a credit card with "00" expiry date, keep all your transaction slips from now on and check them regularly against your statements.
Call your gas and electricity suppliers and ask them what measures they are taking. Keep your utility bills so that you have proof of meter readings, in case there are problems with billing in 2000.
Does insurance cover it?
Policies are designed to cover the unforeseen and the unpredictable - the millennium is foreseeable and predictable, though some of the consequences are not. Speak to your insurance company if you are concerned and check if they have any exclusions, as these may start to appear in 1999. For general advice, call the Association for British Insurers on 0171-600 3333.
Household insurance: it is unlikely that your policy will cover individual items which malfunction. It will be seen as the manufacturer's responsibility to insure that their products are millennium-compliant. However, if your heating broke down and your pipes froze and burst, they would probably meet the cost of repair, because burst pipes could not have been predicted, but it is best to phone them and check.
Travel insurance should be checked closer to 2000 to cover against delays, lost luggage or cancellations.
The "home check!" pack from Action 2000 gives instructions on how to check the internal clock on certain products in your home such as VCRs. By setting the clock to roll from 1999 to 2000 you can see if it recognises the date change.
The Action 2000 website www.bug2000.co.uk. lists the top 100 software packages for personal computers and tells you how they might be affected. If you discover that any products are not year 2000-compatible, get in touch with your retailer.
The Consumers Association would be interested to know if you have experienced any problems with products or services as a result of the millennium bug. Call 0645 830232 if you have had a problem with a product, or 0645 830234 if you have had a problem with a service.
Compiled by the authors of `Women Unlimited: The Directory for Life' published by Penguin, pounds 9.99