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Monday, March 30, 1998 Published at 04:29 GMT 05:29 UK

Special Report

Millennium Bug could cripple governments and health services
image: [ The computer meltdown could leave everybody with a huge New Year's Eve hangover in 2000 ]
The computer meltdown could leave everybody with a huge New Year's Eve hangover in 2000

If and when the Millennium Bug strikes, the consequences could be far more wide-reaching than many governments may have thought.

Last December, more than 60 business leaders and academics sent a stark warning to the governments of Britain, Canada and America.

They expressed "acute concern" and urged steps to "deal with the Millennium Bug as a top priority", otherwise there would be financial chaos and disruption to health and education.

[ image: Older machines like this one are more likely to crash]
Older machines like this one are more likely to crash
It also warned "malfunctions in critical areas, such as air traffic control and defence, may put safety at risk."

The heads of Unilever, Cellnet, Lloyds Bank, GEC, British Aerospace and Marks & Spencer were among the letter's signatories.

The British government has set aside £370m to tackle the bug in the public sector, but campaigner Robin Guenier says, "Government is underestimating the seriousness of this extraordinary problem."

[ image: Robin Guenier: 'Bureaucratic delay should not be tolerated']
Robin Guenier: 'Bureaucratic delay should not be tolerated'
He added, "We are surely facing an emergency the same magnitude as a war".

Lives at risk

In Britain's National Health Service alone, the cost of fixing the problem could be £600m, triple the original figure, estimates Lord Renwick, chair of the Eurim parliamentary IT pressure group.

In an internal letter, the Department of Health's Medical Devices Agency recently admitted: "The resources do not exist ... to investigate every item of hardware and software in use ... let alone put right all those that have not been correctly designed for the year 2000."

According to a report published in December, between 600 and 1,500 people could die as a result of Millennium problems in the NHS.

The prediction is based on the assumption that there will be a 10% failure rate of electronic equipment.

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