AN ILLIBERAL religious establishment acted as a roadblock to efforts to halt an explosion in HIV deaths in Scotland the 1980s, previously classified documents have revealed.

Records of a UK Government committee, set up to co-ordinate a response to a new disease causing widespread public panic, show that ministers courted churches in a bid to win support for new sex education classes in schools and then-controversial initiatives such as handing out clean needles to drug addicts to prevent the spread of HIV.

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While they were largely supported south of the border, the schemes encountered hostile opposition in Scotland, despite the high number of cases in cities including Dundee and Edinburgh, with the latter becoming known as the 'Aids capital of Europe'.

It has also emerged that proposals to secretly test hospital patients for HIV, in a bid to gain a more accurate picture of the number of people affected in the UK, were considered but rejected on ethical and legal grounds. A purge of those with the virus from the military was requested by Defence Secretary George Younger, then an Ayr MP and former Scottish Secretary, in the summer of 1987 but opposed by other senior figures in the UK Government who expressed "serious misgivings".

The papers, released today by the National Archives, reveal that ministers spent months debating whether an animated explanation of how to use a condom should be shown in classrooms to 13 to 16-year-olds.

The Department for Education pushed strongly for the feature to be included in the sex education video, arguing young people should have the full facts about AIDS with some already sexually active, and it was welcomed by schools and churches in England and Wales following trials. However, Malcolm Rifkind, serving as Scottish Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, said that reactions in his patch had been "less favourable" prompting "strong reactions" from the Catholic Church and less vocal opposition from other religious groups.

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The records state: "Many respondents had felt that it placed insufficient emphasis on the role of intravenous drug-taking as a means of spreading AIDS, which was a particular problem in Scotland. More importantly, the churches in Scotland had expressed concern that the video failed to provide clear ethical and moral guidance, in particular that it fostered the impression that sexual relations between children under the age of consent was acceptable."

Despite the opposition, Mr Rifkind insisted that the video was sent to local education authorities in Scotland, allowing them to make the decision over whether it was shown to pupils.

In another entry, reflecting on what is now considered a highly significant Government campaign that used the slogan 'Aids: don't die of ignorance' and saw a leaflet delivered to every home, it was warned that support could not be guaranteed in Scotland.

"The reactions of the churches in Scotland and Northern Ireland were more hostile to the Government's handling of the problem than the Church of England had been," one entry states. "The Free Presbyterian Church in Scotland had, for example, reacted adversely to the recent announcement of limited schemes for the supply of clean hypodermic needles to drug misusers. The co-operation of these churches with the Government's campaign could not be taken for granted."

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In light of "particularly acute" issues with HIV in Edinburgh and Dundee, where several babies had been born HIV positive, the first voluntary screening programme for pregnant women was set up in the cities. The papers state: "In the event of a pregnant woman being found to be HIV positive, termination of the pregnancy might be considered. Particular care would have to be taken, however, of the inevitable sensitivity of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland on this account."

The papers also revealed that the UK Government privately encouraged the development of a condom designed for anal sex, but was keen not to endorse the project publicly over fears it would cause a scandal.