Aids campaign falls victim to 'back to basics'

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS have vetoed an Aids campaign promoting safer sex and condoms, in the wake of the Prime Minister's 'back to basics' initiative. They argue the campaign is too explicit, but Aids organisations say the Government is scared of causing further upset to the Tory moral majority.

Where to buy condoms and how to use them was a dominant theme of the new campaign, costing at least pounds 2m and intended for a spring launch. It was the first attempt for two years to target the general population at risk of HIV, and had been approved by the Health Education Authority, a government-funded body.

But in a strongly-worded letter to the HEA this week, Baroness Cumberlege, Under-Secretary for Health, said that all but one of the planned poster, press and cinema advertisements could cause offence. It is the first time an HEA-approved campaign has been banned by health ministers, and brought swift condemnation from Aids campaigners.

A source close to the HEA said that the Cumberlege letter also signalled an alarming departure for sexual health education, a key area for improvement in the Government's 'Health of the Nation' strategy. It was 'a confusion of public health concerns with party politics. We are moving back to a situation where ministerial approval of advertisements is crucial, and that approval is strongly informed by the 'back to basics' influence.'

Lindsay Neil, director at the HEA, which is under review by the Department of Health, said she was bewildered: 'We were assured by senior civil servants that it was acceptable when we submitted the campaign to the department just before Christmas.' Work began in 1992 and it had been widely tested among teenagers and their parents, and found to be 'appropriate, effective, and did not cause offence.'

Government sources insisted last night that the veto had not been inspired by the 'back to basics' theme, but the decision to drop the campaign exposes a central dilemma at the heart of the initiative.

Ministers have, for several months, highlighted the social problems caused by single parenthood. But action to promote safe sex - and limit unwanted pregnancies as well as curb the spread of Aids - may involve advertising material which causes offence to many traditionalist Tory supporters. Attendance by teenagers at sexually transmitted disease clinics is increasing.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: 'Lady Cumberlege expressed certain reservations about some elements in the latest phase of the campaign and suggested HEA might like to review some of the material in the light of her concerns about getting the balance and content of the advertising right.'

Whitehall sources could not confirm that Lady Cumberlege had consulted Virgina Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, over the sexual frankness of some of the material.

Ceri Hutton, head of policy at the National Aids Trust, said: 'We are deeply concerned that a well-researched and tested campaign has been pulled at this very late stage, wasting hundreds of thousands of pounds.' Nick Partridge, of the Terrence Higgins Trust, questioned how a 'campaign developed in line with a strategy which ministers themselves have approved could be cancelled at the last minute'.

Young gays at risk, page 7

An attempt by John Major to refocus 'back to basics' was overshadowed by a newspaper interview in which Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, was quoted as calling him 'weak and hopeless' and denouncing the moral crusade as 'nauseating' - Page 2