Millennium danger at one in 10 hospitals

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ESSENTIAL SERVICES such as gas supplies, hospitals, fire and police are threatened with "severe disruption" because of the millennium bug, according to an official study published yesterday.

The National Audit Office warned in its report, The Millennium Threat: 221 days and Counting, that a substantial amount of work remained to be done if the risks were to be eliminated. One in 10 hospitals and ambulance services in England were considered to be ill-prepared for computer problems over the new year period. The office identified problems of ensuring the supply chain of goods and services was working efficiently. There was also the difficulty of assessing extra demands from patients and ensuring that staff attended during the holiday.

The Government has refused to sanction any nationwide millennium bonus to guard against staff absenteeism, but it had emerged that hospitals are offering their own terms. In response to union demands for a pounds 500 bonus, London hospitals are offering pounds 150. NHS trusts in Doncaster have said they will be prepared to pay employees five times their normal rate.

The report draws attention to several official agencies where work to eliminate potential problems is not due to be completed until after September. Parts of the Ministry of Defence and the Forensic Science Service are not scheduled to finish their checking procedures until December. "There is clearly no room for further slippage," the report concludes.

The office identifies a "wide variation" in progress at local authorities and a number of them have been asked to report individually later this year. The study revealed that preparations for the bug within government departments and agencies is costing an estimated pounds 420m. The NHS in England calculates its expenditure at pounds 320m.

Ministers conceded yesterday that while the Government could attempt to ensure compliance in Britain, there was little possibility of controlling agencies overseas.