Analysis: New Y2K danger - bug boredom

Anyone who witnessed the tortuous feat last Sunday that is the London Marathon will have been impressed by not only by the amazing stamina of the runners, but also the fancy dress. Among the 45,000 participants were the Spice Girls, the Incredible Hulk, Superman, Spiderman, Dracula and even an herd of Rhinoceros.

Anyone who witnessed the tortuous feat last Sunday that is the London Marathon will have been impressed by not only by the amazing stamina of the runners, but also the fancy dress. Among the 45,000 participants were the Spice Girls, the Incredible Hulk, Superman, Spiderman, Dracula and even an herd of Rhinoceros. But did anyone recognise the Millennium Bug?

Was it an Action 2000 official or a frustrated IT manager that ran past the TV cameras dressed up as the bug that threatens to stall businesses and public services worldwide? Whoever it was succeeded in grabbing more media attention than by conventional means.

While the latest Action 2000 research finds too many organisations are ignoring the bug, scour the papers and you'll find few Y2K column inches. Little if any publicity was given to a Cabinet Office survey, into people's perception of the bug which seemed to conclude most are uninterested in the subject. So is this apathy well-founded or is bug boredom an ominous sign.

Nearly 10 percent of the NHS, several key financial companies, four police stations and one fire brigade are still on Y2K red alert with most utilities still only at amber status, according to yesterday's report about key services. The gas industry says 85 percent of its sector are in the blue. This could be good or bad news depending on how you interpret the colour-coded system. In Action 2000's system for explaining Y2K preparedness red means high risk, amber means some risk and blue means little or no risk.

A rather simplistic approach to a very complicated problem? Indeed, some think so. As ever Robin Guenier, head of Tory appointed Taskforce 2000, is openly critical. Dismissing Action 2000's traffic light system as a "techni-coloured infrastructure dream coat", he reflects the frustrations of many. "The unfortunate effect is that you are forced into a position of simply having to believe or disbelieve the assessments; you can't argue with them because there's insufficient information for an informed discussion," he said. Criticised by Action 2000 for his constant attacks on the organisation that ousted him, Guenier's views are often dismissed as sour grapes.

But he does have a point. After all the devil is in the detail, and it is detail that's definitely lacking from the latest infrastructure update. The colour coding system may provide a good 'at a glance' summary, but it adds no real meat to the bones of the no risk, some risk, severe risk system.

Statements about "significant improvements" and "services on track" does little to inspire confidence in Action 2000's methodology. Added to this, none of the key services representatives were yesterday prepared to name names or give details of what effect companies remaining in the red can expect. The rapid exit most of them made from yesterday's conference would have certainly impressed Houdini

However, Don Cruickshank defends the colour code system as the only way of uniting a myriad of statistics and information. "We needed some standard and in order to communicate the results we needed a common presentation," he says. For those wanting to know what lies behind the colours, Cruickshank points out there is a "huge amount of detail" available on individual Web sites. Unfortunately Action 2000 does not provide details of these on its own Web site.

For those, like the gas companies, patting themselves on the back for achieving blue status, the applause was halted abruptly at yesterday's conference as Cruickshank announced that blue is still not good enough. "A blue rating is not the end of the story -- under the ongoing monitoring programme, contingency plans must also be put in place to deal with the potential effects of the millennium bug," he said.

What will actually happen when the next Millennium dawns is unknown and the latest round of key services status reports fails to throw any light on the consequences of ignoring the bug. When pressed, Action 2000's line was typically ambivalent. "The unknown is how many small disruptions will aggregate following the days and weeks after January 1st," Cruickshank said.

With local authorities yet to reveal their Y2K readiness and a number of health services still in the red, whether one of these "small disruptions" will amount to one man missing out on in his dole check or one woman's life-support systems failing is anyone's guess.