‘A collective sigh of relief’ – former minister remembers millennium bug panic

Written by PublicTechnology staff on 21 December 2022 in News

Gisela Stuart, whose brief included civil contingencies, recalls the havoc that was expected – and failed to materialise

The then Millennium Dome was built by government to mark the dawn of the 21st century   Credit: Mark Taylor/Pixabay

In the hours immediately after the year 2000 dawned, ministers and senior officials collectively issued a “sign of relief” as the pandemonium many had predicted would be caused by the so-called millennium bug failed to materialise.

In the months leading up to the start of the 21st century, there was widespread speculation about what might happen to computer systems around the world that had been programmed to record only the last two years of dates. Warnings were issued about the possible impact at midnight on 31 December 1999 as of IT platforms changed the date not to 2000, but to 1900.

Gisela Stuart, then a Labour minister in the Department of Health with oversight of civil contingencies, told PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World that she and had her colleagues had feared the worst – and were greatly relieved when the new year brought only the mildest of issues with public sector technology.

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“We anticipated the millennium bug causing havoc across all government IT systems,” she said. “There was a collective sigh of relief when only one NHS printer went wrong as 1999 ended and a new millennium began. At the first cabinet meeting of the year 2000, at 7.30 in the morning, Westminster City Council reported that they had collected 37 tonnes of rubbish overnight, 32 tonnes of which was champagne bottles!”

Stuart, who now sits as an unaffiliated peer in the House of Lords, was this year appointed to the post of first civil service commissioner – a role in which she oversees senior appointments across government.

“Elected governments can only function with the support of an effective civil service,” she said, as part of her submission for CSW's annual perm secs round-up. “As its regulator – providing assurance that appointment into the civil service is open, fair and on merit – the commission plays a vital part in maintaining the strength of the civil service.  In our increasingly complex world, this requires greater two-way interchange between the public and private sector. Bringing in new skills and taking insights from the civil service into the private sector strengthens both sides.”


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