THE GOVERNMENT is to send teams of millennium bug busters to locations around the world to warn Britons of the possible dangers they face as the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve.
A special unit in the Foreign Office, staffed by three teams each of nine people, will run a 24-hour operation to field information from countries where the millennium comes earlier than in the UK. Reports of any difficulties experienced to the east are expected to reach London by noon on New Year's Eve.
In all, 76 key sites have been chosen to supply regular updates through the night. "The 76 have been chosen because they are key for political and commercial reasons," a Foreign Office source said. "The first reports will give us any signs of infrastructure failure. And if there are any real difficulties, they will get in touch with key contacts in the Government."
It is understood that each government department has appointed a duty minister for millennium night in case of major failures. They will be alerted to problems abroad.
"The key is to get information about what is happening overseas into the public domain as quickly and as accurately as possible," the source said. "Part of the advantage of being strategically placed in the middle (Britain will see in the New Year 13 hours later than it strikes first) is that we will be able to see what is happening in other countries and feed information to ministers and experts. We will be able to use it to make sure the same thing is not going to happen here."
Britons abroad will be able to call on the services of a special "consular emergency unit", which will be on 24-hour standby, should they experience difficulties.
The bug's possible disruptive effects on nuclear weapons have prompted the US and Russia to set up an unprecedented joint early warning system this week.
Top brass from both countries will watch missile warning screens side by side in a specially constructed building until a week after the new year. They will try to detect false alarms from computer glitches, and avoid launching nuclear strikes in response.
But some experts say that does not go far enough, and want Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton to deactivate their arsenals over the turn of the year.
Last year an authoritative report concluded that there could be "no confidence" that the Pentagon would get its systems ready for Y2K, as the millennium bug is known in the US. This Wednesday some 20 senior Russian officers will join a similar number of Americans at a specially built "Centre for Y2K Stability" in Colorado Springs near the US early warning command centre deep in the mountains.
The centre will become fully operational on December 28 and from then until January 7 two Russian officers and two Americans will sit side by side around the clock, with hotlines to their respective command centres.Sir Joseph Rotblat, a member of the war-time Manhattan project, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for his work on nuclear disarmament, told The Independent on Sunday: "You cannot exclude the possibility that something may go wrong."
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