Millennium threat to Britain's highways

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The Independent Online
The threat of the Millennium computer bug blacking out traffic lights and other traffic control systems has belatedly been recognised by the Highways Agency, it was revealed yesterday.

David Clark, the Cabinet minister with responsibility for public service computer networks, last night published Whitehall's latest report on preparations for the Year 2000 (Y2K) computer date-change - when many computers are expected to crash because they are programmed to interpret the year suffix "00" as 1900, rather than 2000.

According to Mr Clark's calculations, the overall costs of putting the problem right have increased from an estimated pounds 370m to pounds 393m over the last three months - but final costs could well be three times as much as that when hospitals, schools, police and fire services are taken into account.

Computer Weekly reports tomorrow that internal government figures already show a millennium bug budget in excess of the pounds 750m planned for the Millennium Dome. Tony Blair, who has taken keen interest in the issue, is to make a speech on it at a Midland Bank conference later this month.

An illustration of the escalation in costs was provided yesterday by the Highways Agency, which had previously budgeted for pounds 4.3m. Yesterday, that shot up to pounds 14.3m, with a completion deadline slipping from the end of this year to Spring 1998 - because of "new activities".

The new work included projects for "Type approval of traffic control equipment" and "Trunk road highway network infrastructure". Mr Clark summed that up as "management of traffic lights".

So far, the agency has spent just pounds 130,000 - less than one per cent of its overall budget - and its answers to the standard questions put by the Cabinet Office illustrate the fraught nature of the exercise faced by government and business.

Asked what percentage of its computer system components for which it had adequate assurance of millennium compliance, the Highways Agency replied: "Unknown". It also said replies it had received from suppliers, asked for assurances that they were dealing with their Y2K problems, were "patchy".

Mr Clark said in a Commons reply: "The progress reports indicate that many organisations have reached the testing stage, and in some cases, completed work for significant systems."

He also said that all organisations now set themselves a completion date, "with 81 per cent expecting to complete work by March 1999". But departments have not been given central benchmarks for the work ahead - nor have they been given deadlines for testing their equipment.

The Department of Health even reported: "Programme completion date is end of March 2000, this to allow for remedial work after 1.1.2000."

Mr Clark said he had no direct responsibility for hospitals, and that Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, had written to them separately, asking to be kept informed of progress.