The NHS millennium executive team will embark on a series of visits to 30 'randomly chosen' winter-planning groups next month.

Team head Andrew Cash - on secondment since June from his post as chief executive of Sheffield's Northern General Hospital trust - said the visits will 'support and develop' work going on nationwide.

He likened his team's role to that of Dr Peter Homa's National Patients Access Team - with a 'focus on developmental work and areas of good practice'.

Mr Cash said: 'We are not here to get in the way. We have got highly competent professionals out there in the field - we have to let them get on with it.' He also insisted 'there should be no panic' over year 2000 planning.

The 99 winter-planning groups have until the end of next week to meet year 2000 equipment compliance deadlines. Figures for July show that 13 per cent of NHS organisations now have a 'blue' rating for millennium readiness, meaning they face 'no risk of material disruption'. No organisations are now rated 'red'.

Work is 'ongoing' to develop local 'mapping systems' to co-ordinate availability of GPs and pharmacy services.

The national visits follow a national conference last month, when a survey of 700 senior managers and planners found that staffing over the holiday period remained the biggest concern.

Mr Cash said that while his team was 'encouraging employers to finalise employment arrangements', negotiations were best left to local decision- makers.

'I am confident that staffing arrangements will be OK over the millennium period,' he said.

This year the NHS aims to increase the number of GPs available over the Christmas and new year period by between 20 and 50 per cent in different areas.

'We have realised the importance of engaging with primary care very early,' said Mr Cash, who maintained that 'there is no evidence to suggest that GPs were overwhelmed last year'.

NHS Year 2000 returns.