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Dial 2000 for police with no party leave

HOLIDAY LEAVE for the millennium celebrations is being axed for hundreds of thousands of staff in the emergency services, as concern grows about the chaos which is expected from excessive partying and the millennium computer bug.

At least 35 out of 43 police forces in England and Wales have cancelled leave for civilian staff and officers. Across the country, NHS trusts and ambulance services are discussing whether to suspend leave for the four-day public holiday starting on 31 December 1999. In all, an estimated 750,000 people will be working during the century's biggest party.

The greatest concern is the millennium bug, which may cause computer software to fail because it will not recognise the "00" in 2000. Emergency services are worried the bug may affect their equipment at a time when they will face extra demand on resources.

The police bill for overtime is expected to be around pounds 58m and the Association of Chief Police Officers says the move to cancel leave on such a scale is "unprecedented". Constables and sergeants will be paid double time and Scotland Yard estimates New Year's Eve will soak up 25 per cent of its overtime budget for the year.

Merseyside Police has cancelled leave for its 4,000 officers and 1,500 support staff and set up a unit for strategic planning. "The fact that a lot of people celebrate over and above the usual way and the uncertainty of the millennium bug place an additional burden on us," Inspector Geoff Bullen said.

The Department of Health is not issuing guidelines on NHS staffing levels, but has made clear its concerns. Greenwich Hospital, which has the Millennium Dome on its doorstep, may invite staff to take a holiday this Christmas in lieu of next year. In the West Midlands, the Dudley NHS Trust is considering whether to cancel leave.

"We want to make sure we don't have any nasty surprises on the night," said Sarah Putnam, a spokeswoman for the trust. "We have to be covered because the bug may cause equipment failure or cause problems outside the hospital among water or power utilities."

The London Ambulance Service is debating whether to withdraw leave for its 2,100 front-line staff. Last New Year's Eve it dispatched 2,073 ambulances between 9pm and 5am, one every 30 seconds. "Everyone is having to approach this by saying that past figures may not reflect what could happen," a spokesman said. "We're expecting a very busy night."

The RAC has also told its employees not to book leave for the millennium, in case computerised car systems are affected by the bug.

Unions have warned against cuts on leave being imposed without discussion. "It's not good industrial relations to impose diktats from on high," said a spokeswoman for Unison. But the shopworkers' union, Usdaw, said there would be "no shortage of volunteers" to work during millennium celebrations if shops paid double time.

The 12,000-member Information and Technology Professionals' Association has warned it will "rigorously oppose" any attempt to cancel leave for computer specialists.

Fire brigades will not cancel leave because they operate at high alert at all times.

t McDonald's the US fast food chain, plans to sponsor one of the 14 zones in the Millennium Dome for pounds 12m, as well as being one of the 30 food outlets.

Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik joked last week, that the hamburger giant "would probably try to reduce it to a large McDome and fries."