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UK Ambassador: 'I can't ask' Y2K questions for Slovakia

David Lyscom, the British Ambassador to Slovakia, does not look like a bearer of bad tidings. Tall, slim and energetic, Lyscom is a career diplomat who has served in Ottawa, Bonn, Vienna and Riyadh.
But to many Slovak firms and state officials, the message that Lyscom has brought to Slovakia may be unwelcome news indeed. For the British diplomat is an expert on the "millenium bug" problem, and says that Slovak state and private firms may not be taking preparations for January 1, 2000 seriously enough.
Before being appointed as Ambassador to Slovakia in October 1998, Lyscom served as the head of the Foreign Office's Environment, Science and Energy Department, where he studied the effects that the millenium bug would have on the British economy.

British Ambassador Bavid Lyscom believes Slovakia is moving too slowly in its millennium bug preparations.
photo: Courtesy of David Lyscom

David Lyscom, the British Ambassador to Slovakia, does not look like a bearer of bad tidings. Tall, slim and energetic, Lyscom is a career diplomat who has served in Ottawa, Bonn, Vienna and Riyadh.

But to many Slovak firms and state officials, the message that Lyscom has brought to Slovakia may be unwelcome news indeed. For the British diplomat is an expert on the "millenium bug" problem, and says that Slovak state and private firms may not be taking preparations for January 1, 2000 seriously enough.

Before being appointed as Ambassador to Slovakia in October 1998, Lyscom served as the head of the Foreign Office's Environment, Science and Energy Department, where he studied the effects that the millenium bug would have on the British economy.

Lyscom warns that as computer, software and electronic systems with embedded time components hit the year 2000, all kinds of possible systems failures may occur worldwide, throwing entire sectors - banking and finance, telecom, transport - into chaos, both domestically and across national borders. This phenomenon, caused by the inability of older electronic time pieces to make sense of the '00' notation for the year 2000, is known as the 'millenium bug' or as the 'Y2K' problem.

While western countries are already well ahead in their preparations for the Y2K phenomenon, Lyscom continues, Slovakia continues to treat the problem rather lightly. And with little over nine months remaining until the next millenium, time is running short.

The Slovak Spectator paid a visit to the British Embassy on March 5 to talk with Ambassador Lyscom about the millenium bug in Slovakia.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You are the author of a pamphlet called "UK note on the millenium bug," which outlines possible problems and strategic solutions to the so-called "Y2K" problem. What is your interest in the 'millenium bug'?

David Lyscom (DL): In professional terms, during my last job in London I was in charge of the Environment, Science and Energy Department [of the Foreign Offce] which dealt with the international aspects of science, technology, energy and the environment. One of the areas in which we were asked to do some work was the international implications of the millennium bug for the UK. The point that came across very strongly in the talks I had in London at the various departments was that even though the UK is an island, when it comes to the effects of the Y2K, no country is an island. The cross border implications could be quite significant.

We felt that it was in the interest of the UK government to make sure that other governments were taking the issue seriously, and that is why we launched our initiative in the EU and the G7 [group of leading global economic powers]. [We tried] to get embassies from countries around the world to follow up on the Y2K problem with their host governments to find out what was going on in terms of preparations. We wanted to satisfy ourselves that they were taking the question seriously.

As far as I am aware, the response that we got from the previous Slovak government suggested that they had not taken Y2K seriously, that there had never been any concerted action to solve the problems and that it had just been left up to the individual sectors [of the economy] to do what they wanted to do. To me that sounded a particularly dangerous course given that a large segment of the economy, particularly the most strategic sectors, is still in the hands of government.

For example, the government is still responsible for the power sector and large chunks of the transport sector. One of the things that I did when I first arrived here was to raise this [Y2K preparedness] issue with the various people directly concerned, to find out if they were aware of the issue and what they were planning to do about it. I think that in the last few months there has been a significant increase in awareness across the Slovak government about the problems of the millennium bug and I hope that they are now starting to tackle these issues.

With this in mind, we are holding a seminar on March 23rd which is aimed at raising awareness even further across the government and into the strategic sectors. We will bring in a few people from the UK to talk about our experiences and how we have been dealing with [Y2K preparations]. One of the things we have done in the UK is to form inter-governmental committees with representatives from each ministry to insure that we are not overlooking sectors that could be of importance. For example, the Home Office of our Interior Ministry must reassure the Prime Minister's Office that they are covering issues like the operation of the police, telecommunications, broadcasting, whether hospital equipment will work - whether we will have difficulties treating people during that period, ambulances, and so on. Traffic control, electricity supplies as well. There has been a concerted effort to try to solve as many of these problems in advance so that we don't have systems breaking down. At the conference, what we would like to do is share our experience with our Slovak interlocutors. We will run this seminar jointly with the Office of Statistics, which is responsible for that social role here in Slovakia.

TSS: Some analysts have said that it's already too late to prepare for the Y2K problem, that preparations must already be underway. Do you believe that companies which have not considered the Y2K problem still have a chance to defend themselves against it?

DL: I believe that even in Britain things are going to go wrong. During the course of past experiments [to determine Y2K effects], it has been very difficult to determine exactly what was going to go wrong. I mean, it could be one piece of equipment and it could be another - it's not predictable. I think that in any economy, some systems are not going to work, even if you think you've got them all right.

In one case, a power station did a date roll-over test which shut down the smart flu-stack temperature sensor triggering. It had nothing to do with the safe operation of the power station, it was just a little sensor up in the chimney. But because it used a chip which measures the temperature over a period of time, it failed and then the whole thing shut down. There are all kinds of uncertainties here and when you multiply them by the thousands, considering all the chips around, even the UK is not going to get it 100% right.

I don't think Slovakia is anywhere as near to being 100% as we are, and we're not there yet either. So while there is still time to sort out some of the major problems, nobody is going to get it 100% right.

TSS: In your talks with Slovak ministries, who appeared to be most prepared for the millennium bug?

DL: The talks I had were not so detailed, but I hope that some of this will come out at our seminar. I hope that there has been a concerted effort to pull all the different loose strands together, but I am not sure that is being done.

TSS: Which ministries will preparation be most important for?

DL: Essentially those dealing with banking and finance. I understand the National Bank of Slovakia (NBS) has actually been taking action on that side.

Energy is crucial. I don't know about t

heir electricity grid or transmission systems. One of the possible problems there is progressive failure, where the failure of one system could have knock-on effects on other areas resulting in the whole system going down.

Transport is another - whether the traffic lights would still be working. Railway systems - the chips there are a concern. Air traffic control, defence. Telecom - I haven't had contact with [state telecom operator] Slovenské Telekomunikácie, so I don't know where they stand, but we hope to find out on March 23rd. Those are the real keys.

Let me add that the reason why we are interested here at the embassy is because we are responsible for the British citizens that will be [in Slovakia] as the date changes over. We will have to help them if any problems occur, if they get stuck here, if they are in hospitals, if the electricity goes down. There are all sorts of problems that could arise so that is where my responsibility comes in. But there are also the cross-border aspects of this, that there will be knock-on effects, that if one part of the financial system collapses, it will effect other parts .

TSS: What did you discover during your experiences in England? To what extent will Britain be affected by other countries?

DL: I think that one of the big worries there was the financial system and the knock-on effect. But then it goes much wider in terms, for example, of spare parts and components for industry. If they stop coming from supplier countries then our industry would have to close down until the suppliers were reinstated.

I think we are pretty self-contained on the energy front. In terms of telecommunications, we would be able to phone each other but could we phone anywhere else? I don't know, we'll have to see.

The Americans are a long way ahead on all this but even they won't be 100% there. So, for example, if parts of the Internet go down, it very well could be one of those progressive problems and then you could forget about computer communication. I don't know how much of the system would have to go down for that to happen, and it is a very flexible network, but those are the kind of things that are possible.

TSS: In terms of specifics, what kind of problems can we expect from, for example, Slovakia's nuclear power plants?

DL: I think that the nuclear sector has always been seen as a particularly sensitive sector, so action has been taken in good time. As I said, the IAA has undertaken work with all countries that have nuclear power-plants. I visited the nuclear power plant in [western Slovakia's Jaslovské] Bohunice a couple weeks ago and I was assured that they had been in touch with the IAA and that they had gone through their operational systems to make sure that nothing would be compromised by the millennium bug. They have been aware of this problem for some time and they have been dealing with it. So I don't see that as a problem.

But going around to every company and checking progress is simply not our job here at the embassy - we don't have those kinds of resources. So I don't know whether the transmission industry has made their preparations and if one bit of it goes down, we could have this knock-on effect and it could bring the whole thing to a halt.

TSS: Slovakia lags behind western countries in terms of its technological development. Will this fact influence how severe the Y2K problem will be in Slovakia?

DL: It may be that Slovakia is less vulnerable because it doesn't have this generation of computers and chip-driven equipment from the 1980's that the rest of us have in the west. Their problem may be smaller rather than larger.

For example, the problem in the nuclear reactors was basically the control systems. The original Russian design [used in Slovak nuclear facilities] was all mechanical, so there was no problem there, but it has since been upgraded to make it safer with new computer-controlled equipment from the west. Ironically, they have now had to iron all the bugs out of these upgrades [instead of the original safety devices].

It also may well be that Slovak railways will not encounter any problems because they haven't had any new equipment [installed] for a few years.

But these are questions that [Slovaks] have to ask themselves - I can't ask these things for them. I am not here to damn Slovakia for what it hasn't done. All I can do is say is, "this is something that you have to look at and you need to satisfy yourself because it affects other people. Slovak people will suffer but so will other people, and it may have cross-border effects. You just don't know, it really is a big unknown."

TSS: How willing have people been to act, to talk, to think about the millennium bug?

DL: I have come across people who hadn't thought about it before, so they were pleased to have it pointed out to them. Well, maybe pleased is the wrong word. They've certainly been interested, I should say. They may not be pleased to discover another problem they have to deal with - their government has got enough problems as it is dealing with the economy, and so on. But, I've had no one kick me out and say "I don't want to hear this."

TSS: Some Y2K experts have reported that a millenium bug solution being considered by many Slovak companies is just to discard their old systems in the year 2000 and buy completely new computer hardware - the reason being that they fear the expense of upgrading their existing technology now. Is this a sensible strategy?

DL: Well, [I would suggest to these firms that] it's better to have a poor economic situation than no economic situation at all. To put it bluntly, if nothing functions on January 1, these firms will have no economic situation at all. [Underestimating the effects of the Y2K bug] could be the last straw that drives firms out of business. If they find that they can't do business for a couple weeks [after January 1], their cash flows will dry up. I would have thought that it's fairly obvious.

A lot of companies think that [Y2K affects] just their computers. They say that because they've bought Windows 98, they won't have any problems. Well, they may think that, but [less obvious hazards like] embedded chips may cause them trouble. Their lifts may go out, for example, because lifts are controlled by these chips, but that is a minor inconvenience unless you're trapped in one of them. But who knows what systems they've got? Security systems may have imbedded chips and they may go wrong unless they are very modern. There could be many aspects that they haven't even considered.

TSS: Is there an environmental aspect to the Y2K?

DL: If a nuclear plant explodes, I guess there is. Seriously, though, yes. It could affect waste water treatment programs or scrubbers taking the sulfur out of emissions.

TSS: Where will you be for 2000?

DL: I have to discuss it with my family. They want to be in London but I was toying with the idea of throwing a big party at my [Bratislava] residence for the British community, but we haven't really worked it out yet. But whatever we do, I will have a supply of candles. Mind you, though, that might not do any good because if the power goes, I've got no heating, water, gas, lighting and you won't be able to open my gates, so I'd be trapped. Maybe I'll get some tinned food as well.

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