independent– Margaret Thatcher opposed the idea of government warnings about “risky sex” in an Aids awareness campaign during the late 1980s, a former Conservative cabinet minister has said.
Norman Fowler claimed the then-prime minister believed that mentioning risky sexual practices in a leaflet campaign would encourage people to “experiment”.
Lord Fowler, then Tory health secretary, said she was “just wrong” on the matter – and claimed she had been sceptical about running any information campaign on the Aids epidemic.
The success of Channel 4’s drama It’s a Sin – which portrays widespread confusion in Britain during the HIV-Aids crisis of the 1980s – has raised questions about the Thatcher government’s response.
Despite Ms Thatcher’s own misgivings, her health secretary launched the government’s ‘Aids: Don’t die of ignorance’ campaign in 1986.
“Right from the beginning Margaret was a sceptic about having this major campaign … on the dangers of contracting HIV and how you could avoid it,” Lord Fowler told the BBC.
“There was a section in [the leaflet] on risky sex andMargaret came back on it and said, ‘Do we really need to have this thing on risky sex?’ Well, as the whole point of it was to warn people about it, it seemed to me that it was essential to have that in.”
The section was not included. The final wording on the leaflet warned: “Those most at risk now are men who have anal sex with other men. Drug misusers who share equipment. Anyone with many sexual partners.”
Lord Fowler said: “Her concern was – it’s always seemed to me a bit odd – that we were teaching people, telling people things about which they didn’t know – the implication being that, once they knew it, then they would go out and experiment.”
The Tory peer, who now serves as Lord Speaker of the upper chamber, added: “Well, as this was exactly the opposite of our message, it did seem to me curious.”
In the early years of the 1980s little was known about the “mystery illness” affecting gay men in the US. It wasn’t until 1984 that scientists revealed the discovery of a virus causing Aids – officially named HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) two years later.
On claims the government cost lives by acting too slowly on the crisis, Lord Fowler said: “You could always say we should have started earlier, but I think we started at more or less the right time, because it was about the time when public concern was growing.”
He added: “We got it at that time and then we hammered it home.”