More than 80 per cent of NHS computer systems in Scotland will be free of the millennium bug by the end of March 1999, with work to 'firm up' compliance among stragglers being carried out during the rest of the year, MPs have been told.

In evidence to the Commons public accounts committee last week, Scottish NHS chief executive Geoff Scaife said the Management Executive had made sure health boards and trusts put the issue 'at the top of their agendas'.

'Sixty-six per cent are currently forecasting compliance of all critical systems and equipment by the target date of 31 December this year. A further 16 per cent are very clear that they will be compliant by the end of March 1999.'

The remaining 17 per cent were 'coming under very, very considerable pressure', said Mr Scaife.

The NHS in Scotland's preparations stand in contrast to those in England, where, a report from the Audit Commission claimed last week, two out of three NHS organisations have no written strategy and most are missing deadlines.

One-off costs for year 2000 IT compliance in Scotland would be£56m, with recurring costs of£2.6m a year, Mr Scaife told MPs. 'We expect trusts and health boards to meet these costs from within their existing allocations.'

But he rejected a suggestion that 100 per cent compliance should be guaranteed this year. 'In my judgement the time to firm up arrangements is during 1999, (cracking down now) would be a waste of resources.'

Mr Scaife was before the committee to answer questions about the NHS in Scotland's accounts for 1996-97. The National Audit Office had earlier raised concerns that early payments were putting financial controls at risk.

Commenting on Lothian health board's use of such payments to a trust in order to meet its cash targets, he said: 'In a sense there was some advantage to the health board in terms of buying in bulk and achieving a discount.'