LookBack '98: A year in the life of the Bug

Jane Wakefield takes us through the millennium bug stories of 1998. It wasn't what you'd call a smooth period for the bug busters...
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

Action 2000 -- the government sponsored millennium bug organisation -- started the year with a cuddly black bug in the yellow triangle of the campaign logo. Designed to draw attention to the issues of the millennium date change, by the middle of the year the bug had changed. Head drawn into neck and eyes narrowed into an altogether more menacing stare, the bug's transformation symbolised Action 2000's increasing concern that people were not taking heed of the warnings.

Indeed people were being forced to take notice of the bug and the year was punctuated with several scare stories in the press. Most alarming was when John Evans, chairman of the millennium committee for the Association of Chief Police Officers revealed in November that the army could be called upon to provide air support to the police and move them from "hot spot to hot spot" if motorways, hospitals and other computer reliant services collapsed come the millennium period.

There were worries about the MOD's weapon systems and life-saving machines in hospitals. Duncan Macpherson, head of emergency planning at the Department of Health, described the millennium as "the biggest cloud on the horizon we have ever had" and admitted that planning for it was difficult as the bug was "an unknown quantity" and no-one really knew "what is going to drop on us on the day".

The year began with Prime Minister Tony Blair throwing his weight behind the millennium bug campaign, warning UK firms they "must act now". Brochures and helplines were set up by Action 2000. Gwynneth Flower, managing director of Action 2000 emerged as one of the bug's fiercest adversaries. Always good for a quote and not averse to putting her foot in it, Flower became increasingly outspoken. Frustrated with business apathy, she often added fuel to press speculation fire. Describing the utilities as "a scheming bunch" and taking a firm line on the need to "name and shame" laggard companies, she provided a stark contrast to Action 2000 chairman Don Cruickshank and his more optimistic approach.

By July Flower's worries seemed well-founded and Action 2000 launched a £10m marketing and advertising campaign to persuade small and medium sized businesses to act against the bug. A national poster campaign, press adverts in national and local papers urged firms to recognise the bug as a "business issue". The government joined in the mid-year spend with £27m to subsidise `bug busting' training courses for businesses. It was hoped to attract 20,000 people by March 1999.

By the autumn it was clear money and adverts were not going to persuade the countries 800,000 small and medium sized businesses to take action. Less than 50 percent were deemed by Action 2000 to have done enough and only 240 individuals had signed up to the government's training courses. In a desperate effort to boost some interest, the courses were later provided for free.

In a last ditch attempt to persuade firms to act, Action 2000 launched the world's first bug park in Welwyn Garden City in November. Aimed to turn the "anonymous statistics into reality" and act as a barometer to other companies, 15 businesses agreed to share their plans and bug programmes with anyone interested. Chosen as a representative cross section of the UK business community, the bug park companies would galvanise other similar firms into action, Flower hoped.

The government itself seemed increasingly keen to distance itself from the issue. Speaking last month Margaret Beckett, Leader of the House of Commons, claimed it was not the responsibility of government to make firms take action. Instead she called for openness amongst the business community. On this, she was prepared to lead by example and published details of government departments bug programmes on the government Web site last month.

In November, it seemed there was some light at the end of the tunnel as Action 2000 announced that 90 percent of big business had pretty much completed their bug programmes. The optimism was to be short-lived as it emerged that despite solid anti-bug programmes, many companies were already experiencing millennium problems.

Unisys, commissioned to run health checks on around thirty large organisations in the financial and commercial sectors, found problems in all but one case. Originally intended only as "a second pair of eyes" to look over completed bug programmes, Unisys found glitches and problems in programmes relying on post millennium dates. Year 2000 programme manager for Unisys explained: "It could just be a case of how the date appears on a report or it could be more serious and cause the system to fail," he said. So much for preparedness.

By the end of the year, Cruickshank admitted Action 2000 had limited power to put pressure on business. Time then to bring on the big boys, as Action 2000 pledged to work closely with large companies to put pressure on their suppliers during 1999. Banks and insurance companies would play a role too, with many already refusing loans and insurance cover to non-compliant businesses. Flower predicted more and more large firms would seek confirmation of millennium bug accreditation from their suppliers during the coming year.

Openness and disclosure, buzz words in the latter months of the year, will be heard even more loudly in 1999. The key utilities are due late January to reassure us that electricity, water and other services will function normally. Even the UN is waking up to the importance of the issue and promised to disclose where member states are lagging behind in preparedness.

Despite government assurances that planes will not fall out of the sky and services will run normally, the truth is no-one really knows what the bug is capable of. For those hoping to party like it's 1999, be warned: you may not get the chance as many companies will be cancelling annual leave over the millennium period (the police, some local authorities and the NHS have already done this). If you are lucky enough to be on holiday, the complexities of the bug can be reduced to a very simple hope. As Toby Harris, chairman of the association of London government put it: "We all expect the lights to come on after the fireworks have ended."

Editorial standards