Water industry unprepared for millennium bug

THE water industry is trailing behind other utilities in its plans to combat the millennium computer bug, the head of the Government's Action 2000 campaign said yesterday.

Don Cruickshank, the campaign's chairman, said he expected a consistent approach across the public sector as utilities and others tackled the threat posed by the bug - an inbuilt inability of many computer programs to distinguish 1900 from 2000 when two-digit year-dates change to 00 from the end of next year.

Because many computers are inter-linked, faults and crashes could generate chain reaction calamities, and the Government is trying to create contingency plans to deal with breakdowns in major utilities like water, electricity, telecommunications and transport.

Mr Cruickshank told a London press conference yesterday: "Water [supply] is the most worrying." But he also identified parts of the NHS, the international banking system, and the French public services as other areas of vulnerability.

Within Whitehall, some civil service sources have been critical of the low-profile approach being taken by Action 2000 - dubbing it "Inaction 2000".

Replying to that attack, Mr Cruickshank said: "It isn't one of those issues where there can be dramatic announcements." It was more a matter of grinding through the detail of training programmes. "This isn't headline- grabbing stuff," he added. "It may not be headlines but it is action."

Nevertheless, having taken over the task last autumn - when it replaced Taskforce 2000 - Action 2000 launched its millennium bug campaign in January, and Mr Cruickshank announced yesterday the creation of three working groups "to identify the risks to core public services and put in place the measures needed to maintain public confidence".

The Government last night announced an extra millennium holiday for Friday, 31 December, at the end of next year, but many companies will have to call in key staff for the entire four-day weekend to give their computer networks a live run when the date changes to 1/1/00.

Many other non-essential employees might well find that they are given even longer holidays - to keep them out of the way while millennium bug problems are sorted out.

Mr Cruickshank said that while the public sector was lagging behind the private sector by anything up to nine months, in parts, action being taken by up to 500,000 small to medium enterprises was not going as quickly as it should be. He identified as a particular bugbear for small companies, "the useless paperchase" being initiated by bigger companies, swamping suppliers and customers with lawyers' letters, demanding millennium compliance guarantees. "The message that I want to get across," he said, "is that this is hindering rather than helping."

Urging companies to "call off the lawyers", he said he knew of some companies with two sets of legal teams - one issuing letters to suppliers, and the other sending out anodyne replies to customers. "It is a disproportionate concern which is getting in the way of people actually solving the problem," he said.

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