Don't dial 999 on Millennium Eve, warn ministers

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The Independent Online

The Government will advise the public today to avoid dialling 999 on Millennium Eve, to prevent Britain's telephone system from suffering "meltdown" from a surfeit of panicking callers.

The Government will advise the public today to avoid dialling 999 on Millennium Eve, to prevent Britain's telephone system from suffering "meltdown" from a surfeit of panicking callers.

To avoid a telephonic collapse to dwarf that of the recent England-Scotland football match ticket fiasco, a special booklet will be published, giving alternative local numbers for councils, public utilities and even police, fire and ambulance stations.

The pamphlet, part of a joint project between the Government's Millennium Bug Unit and Action 2000, a body set up to inform businesses of the consequences of the date change, will recommend that no one dial the emergency number unless absolutely necessary.

Ministers are determined to act in the light of the chaos seen recently during the sale of tickets for the Euro 2000 qualifier, when demand crashed phone and computer systems.

Margaret Beckett, Leader of the House of Commons, is the minister responsible for overseeing preparations for the date change on 31 December. She is launching the booklet both to reassure the public and to offer practical help on how to avoid making the position worse for the emergency services. Ministers are particularly worried that an anxious population will ring 999 for non-emergencies, such as local power failures or transport delays. Mrs Beckett will also ask people not to ring friends simply to check whether their phone is working correctly.

The project is part of the Government's attempt to prepare effectively for the big night by replacing or updating the computer systems used by every organisation serving the public, from the Ministry of Defence to Railtrack and British Telecom.

Last week Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, announced the creation in Whitehall of the Millennium Centre, which will co-ordinate civil defence and other emergency responses in the event of any serious breakdown of key services. The centre has troops at its disposal to counter any public disorder on the night and to provide emergency help to keep roads and other transport routes open, should traffic lights fail.

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