Move made to halt hoarding for 2000

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The Independent Online
THE CABINET Office yesterday sought to dissuade people from hoarding food next year over fears about the millennium bug, saying there is "no reason to expect" disruption to supermarkets or essential services.

But The Independent has learnt that next year Action 2000, the official group charged with getting businesses to tackle the bug, intends running an advertising campaign to "frighten" people over the possibilities of the problem, which, it says, could lead to the loss of millions of jobs.

The Cabinet Office's move followed a newspaper report yesterday quoting Gwynneth Flower, head of Action 2000, suggesting people stock up with long-life milk, tinned food and biscuits - "the sort of common-sense provisions you would automatically do to ensure against any potential emergency".

Action 2000 called the report "misleading" and said "there is no need for anyone to consider stockpiling", adding that there is "no reason to expect any material disruption" to electricity, gas, phone, financial or water services caused by the bug. The problem arises because many computer programs only check the last two digits of the year date. Unless changed, they could fail unpredictably in dealing with events in 2000. Many businesses have taken remedial action.

But the Government recognises the importance of preventing panic. If everybody in the UK buys a fortnight's stock of food in the last week of 1999, retailers might not be able to cope. In the US, the American Red Cross's advice about the bug includes stocking up on "disaster supplies" of food, filling up car petrol tanks and drawing extra cash. Similar advice appears on the Web for Taskforce 2000, the British predecessor to Action 2000.

Last night, the Cabinet Office said that in the UK the matter was related more to expected celebrations than widespread computer failure. "It's not really a bug issue. We are probably talking about a 10 or 11-day holiday at the end of 1999," said a spokesman. "The American Red Cross were saying that because of the holiday period people will have to stock up on essential items because the shops won't be open."

But the Cabinet Office is doing a survey to evaluate bug awareness and plans a mass leafleting campaign in spring. Last month, Action 2000 produced a leaflet for householders suggesting ways to check if they would be affected, and is planning an advertising campaign emphasising the unavoidable deadline. The last time Britons hoarded supplies was in the 1970s, during random power cuts.

Robin Guenier, head of Taskforce 2000, criticised Action 2000's tactics: "A little bit of panic might be a good idea. If people get used to the idea of this, that could be helpful. But having one thing said one day and another the next just creates a lack of confidence."