The NHS will have to rely on the good will of power, water and telephone companies for priority treatment if the millennium computer bug hits supplies, it emerged this week.
Leader of the House of Commons Margaret Beckett disclosed that the government will not order companies to give priority to hospitals if year 2000 IT failures cause cuts or shortages of supplies.
Ms Beckett said: 'We will not take any responsibility for this. These companies are private and must meet their own responsibilities. We can only make them aware of their position.'
Mrs Beckett, who chairs the cabinet committee co-ordinating action on the millennium bug, was speaking at the launch of the government's response to the highly critical public accounts committee report Managing the Millennium Threat.
She agreed that the bug poses a serious risk to the delivery of essential public services, but said the government would not intervene to save threatened hospitals.
That means the companies will be free to cut off supplies to hospitals if they decide to give preference to large industrial customers.
The government has, however, set up a national infrastructure forum to encourage the utility companies to exchange millennium bug information.
The news was strongly criticised by the NHS Confederation, which fears that utility company failures threaten normal hospital operation at the turn of the century.
Policy director Tim Jones said: 'We are very disappointed with the government's lack of imagination. They are shirking their responsibility.'
Most of the regulators are also refusing to act, he said, and the companies themselves have refused to guarantee NHS priority access to supplies.
'Though NHS management are being asked to give assurances to the PAC that patients will not be harmed, we cannot ourselves get assurances from the utilities that the lights will stay on,' Mr Jones said. 'We regard that as quite pathetic.'
Meanwhile, the NHS Executive, in its response to the PAC report, denies that it got off to a slow start in tackling the millennium bug and claims that there is sufficient time to sort out problems before the September 1999 ultimatum.
It says safety worries over date-sensitive medical devices, such as radiology instruments, are now receding and denies it was misled by the Medical Device Agency as the PAC had alleged.
Only 13 instrument failures related to the millennium bug have been reported to the agency, all of them 'minor'.
NHS Executive accepts criticism over Read codes fiasco
The NHS Executive has formally accepted most of the public accounts committee's criticisms over the Read computer codes affair, conceding that it 'should have acted earlier to end Dr Read's dual role' and that failure to obtain Treasury approval of the codes purchase 'reflected badly on the Executive'.
The response admits that a business case for the purchase was never produced. It also shows that the new NHS Information Authority is being set up in response to the PAC's strong criticism of the lack of central supervision of James Read's operations. Dr Read invented and sold the codes.