Code red for the Millennium

Code red for the MillenniumAction 2000, the government body set up to monitor the Millennium Bug problem, reckons there’s nothing to worry about come December 31, 1999. Using its traffic light scheme to code the progress of industry the head of Action 2000, Don Cruickshank says all those red and amber lights are nothing to worry about. But can he be sure asks Pete Mitchell The Unofficial View
Action 2000’s updates on the country’s readiness to cope with the Y2K problem are anything but rosy. Unfortunately, reports from Taskforce 2000, the unofficial watchdog offer even less hope for a smooth date change.
Last week Taskforce 2000 held a press conference in London to point out deficiencies in preparations by public services, local and central government.
It even resorted to naming and shaming eight police forces which it believes are seriously at risk of disruption come January 1, 2000.
“A number of police authorities are not planning to complete their reviews until the final quarter,” claimed Robin Guenier, executive director of Taskforce 2000 (pictured above). Computer problems unearthed in October are unlikely to be fixed by December 31.
The report names Avon & Somerset, Devon & Cornwall, Cheshire, Hampshire, Metropolitan and Warwickshire as a cause for concern, while NCIS and Sussex are “at serious risk”. Only 13 forces have completed any form of audit, none of them using an independent auditor, claims Guenier.
The Home Office disagrees, claiming Taskforce 2000’s report is based on out of date information from last year.
“The picture is different now. HM Inspector of Constabularies has conducted a detailed professional assessment of all forces,” said a Home Office spokesperson. “By July there will be no red forces and ambers will be progressing to blue.”
After hammering the police, Taskforce 2000 turns its sights on fire brigades and local authorities. Individual fire brigades “could be in very poor shape indeed”, says its report, while a number of local authorities have “done virtually nothing”, it concludes.
Taskforce 2000 is much more positive about the work done by central government departments. Important programmes by the Department for Social Security, Customs and Excise, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food appear to be professionally handled, its report states.
This, says Guenier, is down to the fact that central government has been open about its Y2K programme:”We take the general view that things get done when you have transparency,” he said. “This contrasts with the cloak of secrecy that still covers much of the wider public sector and utilities. We don’t have detail of what’s going on outside central government.”
This “cloak of secrecy” and lack of accountability is the reason why police, NHS, local councils and the like are way behind in the preparations, claims Guenier. “They should open their doors. I think people have a right to know what’s going on in their local authority.”
As for Action 2000, the official government body, Guenier is scathing of its efforts:”They’re not giving us the detail. It really is not good enough.”  
Only seven months to go now until M-Day, and already Britain has spent over ?17bn on eradicating the Year 2000 Bug.
Yet we still don’t know whether Heathrow will end up pock-marked with the smoking remnants of crashed airliners operated by impoverished, non-Millennium-compliant banana republics.
But the good news is that Britain’s crucial industries have got the Year 2000 Bug pretty well under control – or so says the Government-appointed monitoring body, Action 2000.
Spokesmen for the so-called ‘second-tranche’ infrastructure industries – the NHS, aviation, road transport, railways, police, fire services, food supply, local government, and broadcasting – recently gave an account of their progress. (The first tranche included the banking, power and telecoms industries, which reported in January.)
Action 2000 has invented a ‘traffic light’ scheme as a succinct way of describing industry’s progress in exterminating the Bug. Blue means no apparent risk of failure. Amber means there is a risk of disruption, but it’s containable. Red means there is a severe risk of disruption that might not be fixable. White means nobody knows.
Using these codes, the worst performer is the NHS – largely because of the huge number of imported electromedical devices it employs, which have proved to be a nightmare to trace and validate. Not a single NHS organisation is coded blue, and 91 per cent are amber.
But the terrifying figure is the ‘reds’: almost one in ten NHS organisations – many of them GP practices and acute hospitals – have Year 2000 Bug problems that could cause severe dislocation and might not be fixable, admitted the NHS’s director of planning Alasdair Liddell.
The NHS’s trouble is that its component organisations prefer to work independently rather than do what they are told by Whitehall. This tends to defeat national programmes like the Year 2000 deBugging effort. For example, it emerged in March that many hospitals and health authorities had forgotten to deal with the thousands of electronic medical devices in patients’ homes – ranging from kidney dialysis machines to blood glucose meters. Despite government guidance, each was hoping someone else would deal with the issue.
And these problems are only the self-reported ones. No independent assessment of the NHS is yet available, though the Audit Commission is to publish one in July – a plan that has brought it into regular conflict with Liddell’s NHS Executive, according to Action 2000 head Don Cruickshank. It’s no wonder that, simultaneously with his embarrassing record of reds and ambers, Liddell announced a speed-up in the NHS’s deBugging programme. He now requires all NHS organisations to submit Y2K status reports every two months instead of every three, all the way up to the dre aded changeover date.
What of other industries? Well, if anyone desperately wants to fly on New Year’s Eve 1999, Britain’s main air traffic control system – NATS – has been simulation-tested and found ‘blue’, according to the Civil Aviation Authority. And the major British airlines are expected to announce blue status for their aircraft by July.
As for Air Vamos Amigos and its handful of ancient 747s operating out of San Cuspidor – who knows? Any airline that can’t prove its compliance by October 1 will have its UK landing permit withdrawn, says the CAA.
London’s Underground and the rail services are currently classified amber – i.e. probable disruption but countermeasures are available. So that’s an improvement on the usual situation, then. At least their safety-critical systems, such as track switching, are blue.
Legends of road traffic light controllers that will fail in green-both-ways mode have abounded since the Year 2000 problem emerged. There are 376 different kinds of traffic light controllers installed in the UK, so checking their safety must have been quite a task.
But David Rowlands of the Department of Transport and the Environment seemed sanguine: 368 of these have been classified as blue, leaving only eight types as amber. Unfortunately, it seems, we don’t know how many of these amber types there are, or where they are: so for now at least, all roads are being classed as amber. Not that anyone sane, besides maybe the police, will be driving anywhere at midnight this New Year’s Eve.
That’s if the police cars are working. HM Inspector of Constabulary David Gilbertson regretted to report that not one of the 43 forces in England and Wales are cleared for the Millennium. Twenty-four are ‘white’, which sounds innocuous, but really means they haven’t a clue.
Of the rest, 18 are amber and four red. Unimpressive, but Paul Hancock of the Association of Chief Police Officers assures us that the police are “well advanced” with their plans to keep operational systems working (see box out right).
Still, car crashes are only a little local difficulty – unlike, say, the prospect of a poisoned River Trent or a poisonous gas cloud over Teesside. Early in May, the Environment Agency warned that many companies are risking dangerous and expensive pollution incidents because they have not yet checked out their environmental protection systems – almost all of which contain embedded controllers.
In a survey of 400 potential polluter firms, the EA found that almost 30 per cent of them had not checked their environmentally critical embedded-processor systems, and at least 15 per cent do not think their most hazardous systems will be compliant before September at the earliest.
“The result could be severe damage to rivers, release of noxious fumes and effects on drinking water supplies”, says the EA. In the event of a polluting incident, the agency will not accept the Bug as an excuse, it says – the guilty firm will have to pay the full fines and clean-up costs.
Despite this display of reds and ambers, Don Cruickshank’s view is that “the infrastructure is going to be OK”. The main worries are the cumulative effects of many small equipment failures, and possible erratic behaviour by consumers and small businesses, he says. The aftermath could be some massive lawsuits – for which there will be no insurance cover, since the underwriting industry has already carefully absolved itself from any liability for Y2K claims.
And if something big does fail? “Jack Straw has an Emergency Powers Act ready to be used if necessary”, says Cruickshank. Just the thing to fix all those traffic lights.

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