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'Flat ignorant and wrong': Fact-check debunks Brexiteer meme of Remainer fears resembling Millennium Bug 'scare'

Leave supporters laughed off Brexit fears by comparing them to worries about the Millennium Bug.  But now IT engineers have told comic Al Murray how disaster was only averted by years of hard work and planning - and compared that to the seeming absence of planning for Brexit

Adam Lusher
Thursday 02 August 2018 11:52 BST
The facts behind the Brexit meme were revealed after Al Murray, seen here beside rival candidate Nigel Farage at the Thanet 2015 election count, asked what really happened with the millennium bug
The facts behind the Brexit meme were revealed after Al Murray, seen here beside rival candidate Nigel Farage at the Thanet 2015 election count, asked what really happened with the millennium bug

Brexiteers have been accused of being “flat ignorant and wrong” after someone bothered to check the facts behind a key meme used to dismiss Remainer "scaremongering".

For months Brexiteers have been citing “the millennium bug” to portray things like plans to stockpile food and medicines in the event of a no deal as empty “Project Fear” Remainer alarmism.

Leave supporters have contrasted pre-millennium warnings that computers had not been programmed to cope with the switch to a new century with the fact that nothing much actually happened on January 1 2000: planes did not fall from the sky, financial, business and health IT systems did not crash.

In the same way, Brexiteers claimed, Remainer fears of disaster will be proved groundless. Boris Johnson, for example, ridiculed fears about what will happen to the Irish border post-Brexit as "pure millennium bug stuff"

And Leave supporters said radio host Nick Ferrari had made a “brilliant point” about “Project Fear” when he recalled “organisations taking on entire departments and so-called experts to cope with the millennium bug [and] guess what, none of it happened.”

Now, however, someone – the ‘pub landlord’ comedian Al Murray – has asked people who dealt with the millennium bug in the 1990s to tell him what really happened.

He has been inundated with responses from veteran IT workers explaining that the relatively painless result was only achieved because whole teams of people toiled for tens of thousands of hours over months and years to identify all potential millennium bug problems and fix them.

The IT workers also contrasted the purposeful actions of those tackling the millennium bug with the apparent bickering, inertia and inability to face reality that is said to have bedevilled the approach of Theresa May’s government to Brexit.

Their collective memory was summarised by one respondent who wrote: “I recall there was quite a lot of something called PLANNING.”

“I spent nine months testing financial systems in the health service to make sure all coding was working as planned,” said another IT worker, “As opposed to driving off a cliff hoping for a safe landing.”

There was some joking about Murray’s “archaic” practice of seeking comment from experts who had real life experience of a topic.

But another IT worker was allowed to explain: “Nothing broke because we spent 18 months reviewing every single piece of software, upgrading, patching or replacing anything that wasn't certified to have no Y2K issues and then testing it all. Hundreds of people, tens of thousands of person hours.”

“We worked hard to upgrade and mitigate systems that were going to stop working,” concluded one IT veteran. “We didn’t waste two years arguing about what millennium bug we were going to have.”

The IT workers were backed by Martyn Thomas, the professor of information technology at Gresham College in London, who told The Independent that the Brexiteers’ millennium bug claims were “Just flat ignorant and wrong.”

“It’s an abuse of history,” said Prof Thomas, who in the 1990s was the auditor of the UK National Air Traffic Services’ Y2K [millennium bug] programme. “It irritates me. Although frankly it doesn’t surprise me that Brexiteers are using stuff that is wrong and ignorant to prop up their case. They are in the business of fake news and have been ever since the referendum.”

Prof Thomas added that with the millennium bug, “There was a serious problem and serious efforts overcame most of it.

“The comparison is that whereas the government in the 1990s took the millennium threat really seriously and put serious resources into overcoming it, the government has not focused effectively on the threat to the country from Brexit.

“It has been quarrelling internally rather than focusing on getting the job done.”

Prof Thomas explained that although there was some exaggeration about the effects of the millennium bug from newspaper “headline seekers” and consultants trying to sell their services, “the threat was still very serious”.

What Really Happened in Y2K

Prof Thomas has repeatedly challenged the idea that the millennium bug was just a needless scare about a mythical threat, and in a lecture at Gresham College last year he listed some of the things that did happen because of the problem, despite all the efforts to counter it.

These included four women giving birth to Down's syndrome babies after a computer system used in nine UK hospitals failed to categorise 150 mothers as at-risk after incorrectly calculating their dates of birth.

“Other reported problems,” said Prof Thomas, “Included 15 nuclear reactor shut-downs, (in Spain, Ukraine, Japan and the USA).”

Overall, however, efforts to combat the millennium bug were successful – which in the professor’s eyes led to completely the wrong conclusions being drawn about it.

He said: “The Y2K problem is often referred to now as an example of an exaggerated threat or to support an argument that expert warnings – for example about the threat from climate change – should be ignored. In my opinion, this is completely the wrong conclusion to draw from the fact that the worst predictions did not occur.

“Y2K should be regarded as a signal event: a near miss that should serve as a major stimulus to change the way that IT systems are designed and built, so that no similar problem can ever happen again.

“Unfortunately, little seems to have changed, perhaps because Y2K remediation was so successful and because it is only after a catastrophe has occurred that major reorganisations are brought about in the way an industry operates.”

Prof Thomas told The Independent that he now feared that the lessons of Brexit would only be learned after the catastrophe had occurred – although he did console himself with the thought that the EU and the UK might agree to extend the transition deadline rather than face no deal.

“The Brexit deadline is not as fixed as the millennium bug deadline was,” he said. “So Brexit is a moveable disaster.

“I suppose the fact that it is moveable offers some comfort.”

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