Prepared for action

With less than a month to go until the New Year Don Cruickshank assesses the preparations being made to minimise the effects of the millennium bug

A great deal of public attention has been focused on the potential importance of the Year 2000 date change.

Action 2000, the Government initiative set up to prepare the UK for Y2k, has tracked the progress of businesses through bi-monthly research and they are now largely prepared to cope with the millennium bug. Figures revealed in the latest report are extremely encouraging – 99% of FTSE 500 companies and 93% of companies employing 250 or more staff have prepared and expect no disruption, while 84% of small and medium-sized companies’ programmes are on course.

Research shows engineering businesses are among the leaders in terms of Y2k preparation, with high levels of readiness in areas such as embedded systems equipment.

The engineering sector may be well prepared, but I urge it not to be complacent. Companies will dramatically improve their trading prospects for 2000 by taking simple steps such as making contingency plans, being able to back up and restore essential data and informing staff, customers and suppliers about their plans.

Our research also shows high confidence among UK businesses that there will be minimal disruption because of the bug. This has been due to the work of Action 2000’s National Infrastructure Forum. We identified 25 key sectors, appointed responsible bodies for each one and took responsibility for the disclosure of information to the public.

Comprehensive independent assessments covering remediation, testing, supply chain, business continuity planning and millennium operating regimes show it will be business as usual and that these vital service sectors will continue through the millennium period without any serious reduction in service.

Because we have never experienced the millennium bug before no one can predict what will happen. But society copes with disruption every day. There are power cuts, telephone system failures, ambulance control room failures, traffic light failures and water main collapses. These failures will not go away over the millennium period. And doubtless the temptation to attribute any problems after 31 December to the millennium bug will be enormous.

It is even more difficult to predict what will happen internationally. Only a few countries have a policy of complete transparency of information on their state of readiness and, based on the information we have, it appears that only a handful of countries have established as comprehensive and robust a programme as we in the UK.

Although Action 2000’s remit lies in getting the UK ready for the millennium and extends as far as the country’s borders, we are very aware that our everyday lives do not happen in isolation from other countries. Industries such as finance and telecoms recognised their international interdependencies at an early stage and have carried out a substantial amount of work on these aspects. After all, it is in their interests to make sure that customers do not experience problems.

Even in the best prepared countries there may be more than normal disruption. It will not take place immediately at midnight on 31 December 1999, but it will roll on from return to work on 4 January and should be quickly rectified.

In less well prepared countries there is likely to be noticeable disruption and slowing down of economic activity, which may take a long time to correct. Such countries will have to copy the work already carried out in the well-prepared nations, but under more difficult circumstances.

The UK has risen to the challenge and the threat of serious disruption has been diminished, but the real challenge will be the way that the public behaves. The key is to ensure they are well-informed about the date change problem. The business community has expressed concern that `exaggerated and sensationalist’ reporting of the millennium bug could lead to abnormal consumer behaviour such as stockpiling food and essential goods or the withdrawal of unusually large sums of money from bank accounts.

We have provided information and advice on the many facets of the millennium bug so that businesses and consumers can make their own informed decisions. Soon we will see the results of those choices.

Don Cruickshank is chairman of Action 2000