A major teaching hospital was forced to implement its 'internal disaster plan' after work to tackle the year 2000 computer problem caused a telecommunications crash.

John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford was left with 64 working telephone extensions out of 2,300 after engineers tried to install hardware and software to make the switchboard year 2000 compliant on Sunday 15 November.

Director of personnel and administration Mike Fleming, who was called into the hospital as duty director 'at the crack of dawn', said the work was supposed to start at midnight and last an hour and a half.

'At 3am, they called the duty manager to say things were not going well, and asked for permission to abort the installation of the new software,' he said.

'That is when things really went pear-shaped, because by that time the system would not take the old software, either.'

A revised system for paging doctors had to be created and Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading was put on stand-by to deal with major incidents.

But the John Radcliffe managed to accept nine casualties from a two-train collision at Oxford station and deal with what one nurse described as 'near record numbers' of accident and emergency admissions.

Mr Fleming said British Telecom engineers - who were not involved in the original problems - managed to resolve them by 3.50am on Monday.

Royal College of Nursing senior officer Maria Cook blamed pressure on the A&E department on bed blocking and staff recruitment problems, exacerbated by uncertainty over the future of two community hospitals.

Their fate has rested with health secretary Frank Dobson for five months.

'Given the situation, the trust coped remarkably well,' said Ms Cook. 'But staff are now concerned about the year 2000 itself.'

Mr Fleming said: 'We have learned that some of the systems that need to be year 2000 compliant are some of the most important systems in the hospital. And we have realised that the year 2000 is not that far away.

'If 10 or 20 hospitals were all in our position with only two or three months to go, I am not sure there would be the capacity to get all the problems fixed.'