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Archived: Belgium's fourth wave of coronavirus, October-December 2021

03:04 01/12/2021
Please note, this article is no longer being updated since 31 December 2021. For the latest, check www.thebulletin.be/coronavirus

What's the latest?

What changes from 26 December? Cultural, festive and recreational activities indoors are generally banned - including the closure of cinemas, theatres, casinos and bowling alleys. But places of worship, libraries, museums and swimming pools remain open, as well as gyms and fitness centres. Shops remain open but with a new limit of two adults per shopping group and one customer per 10m² of retail space. Christmas markets can go ahead, without the use of tents, a limit of one visitor per 4m², a one-way plan and separate entrances and exits. This was impossible at the Brussels Christmas market, which is now largely being dismantled.

The fourth wave has barely passed, but according to microbiologist Emmanuel André, a fifth wave is not far behind. "This wave has already begun, but it is not yet visible in terms of infection numbers," he said. "The delta wave is falling rapidly every day, and omicron is increasing very sharply. This storm has started and will become evident in the coming days and weeks. Each person will infect several people around them. An extremely fast exponential is going to occur."

The omicron variant's growth in Belgium is rapid. On Friday, it accounted for 10% of all positive tests. By Monday, it had reached 20%, said KU Leuven microbiologist Emmanuel André.

A study into "long Covid" commissioned by public health institute Sciensano has found that almost half of respondents still experienced at least one symptom more than three months after infection. Researchers made contact with 1,658 people and asked them about their recovery. The study is not yet complete - it is due to run until April 2023 - to better track the long-term consequences of having coronavirus. The most common complaint among respondents still suffering symptoms was fatigue/exhaustion, followed by headaches, memory problems and muscle pain.

Within a month, Omicron will have surpassed Delta as the dominant coronavirus variant, according to Geert Molenberghs of KU Leuven’s Bioinformatics Centre. The number of people testing positive for the variant doubles every 2.5 days, he told the Flemish parliament this morning. This is much faster than the Delta variant spread, he confirmed. “We considered the spread of Delta unbelievable compared to the Alpha variant,” said Molenberghs. “Today we see that Omicron spreads twice as fast.”

At Christmas, interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem has some tips on safe socialising. Do not go to a social gathering if you feel ill, take a self-test before heading out, and keep any socialising to small numbers. "Don't go to a party with 20 or 30 people," he advises. Get-togethers should be organised in "the largest possible place - the largest house or apartment among the participants" and windows and doors should be regularly opened to circulate air. Wear a mask when welcoming a guest at the door, and when in the company of elderly, fragile and immunocompromised people.

The lions at Pairi Daiza were in quarantine after one of them – 13-year-old female Dana – tested positive for the coronavirus. The four lions are not currently visible to the public and are also separated from each other, though the other three have not yet tested positive. Lion keepers have also all tested negative. Dana has a fever, a cough and little appetite; she is being treated with medication. It is the first case of an animal testing positive at Pairi Daiza. Antwerp Zoo announced that its two hippopotamuses had tested positive.

All nursery and primary schools in Belgium closed for the Christmas holidays a week earlier than planned, on Friday 17 December, and secondary school pupils will switch to a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning next week, Belgium's coronavirus consultative committee has announced. From Monday, indoor events - including concerts, theatre performances and cinema screenings - cannot have more than 200 attendees. Read all the details here...

A survey of 18,000 Belgians by UGent, KU Leuven, UC Louvain and ULB has found that "people are still willing to make sacrifices to protect the health of others", but that there is growing dissatisfaction with the government's handling of the crisis, with a string of consultative committee meetings in short succession deemed to be "too little, too late". Some 69% of respondents said they were "rather" or "strongly" motivated to follow the current coronavirus measures. But confidence in the government has gradually waned as the fourth wave has developed, with 73% of vaccinated respondents saying they had little or no confidence in the competence of the government.

According to a new study by UCLouvain health psychologist Olivier Luminet, almost half of people in Belgium are no longer limiting their social contacts, contrary to what the experts have advised. The report looks at compliance with basic barrier gestures at three points this year: April, June and now, with the same sample of the population each time. Limiting social contacts was followed by 80% of respondents in April, 61% in June and 56% at the start of December. "This is probably a testament to the natural need for individuals to socialise with others, in real, face-to-face interactions, as well as to changes in the rules in place related to permitted social interactions," the professor notes.

Belgium has passed the 27,000 mark for deaths due to the coronavirus. Currently, 316 people are admitted to hospital a day with complications due to the virus. There are 780 people in intensive care, well above the 500 urgency limit that requires special measures be taken. Hospitals have been instructed this week to postpone all non-critical surgeries and procedures by two weeks. An update of corona-related figures can be found below.

Belgium has become the first country in Europe to detect a case of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus, first found in South Africa. The affected patient was unvaccinated and had travelled to Belgium from Egypt, via Turkey, said health minister Frank Vandenbroucke. Several European countries, including Belgium, have decided to suspend flights from several south African countries where this latest variant has been reported. France has reinforced its border controls with Belgium.

The coronavirus contact-tracing service is "overwhelmed" with a bottleneck of cases that need processing. "We can no longer contact everyone within 24 hours of a confirmed case," said interfederal contact tracing coordinator Karine Moykens. "It's especially tense in Wallonia and Flanders. In Brussels, we are still managing to meet deadlines. We're looking for solutions."f

"The epidemiological situation is not good," said Belgium's coronavirus commissioner Pedro Facon. "A resurgence in the autumn and winter was expected, but the circulation of the virus is very high - higher than expected - impacting hospital capacity." In theory, Belgian hospitals have more than 2,000 intensive care beds but, unlike previous waves of Covid-19, this is not quite the case in practice as staff absenteeism means it is not possible to keep all of these beds operational.

About 35,000 people demonstrated in central Brussels against Belgium's coronavirus measures. Three police officers were injured and signed off work - two for 11 days, a third for four weeks. Six police vehicles were damaged and a police scooter set on fire. Rioters also smashed the windows of a supermarket. Brussels mayor Philippe Close "strongly condemned" the violence and said police were analysing CCTV footage. Police made 42 administrative arrests and used tear gas and water cannon to disperse a group of about 1,000 protesters who refused to move on after the demonstration ended.

RTBF reported that "a great diversity of points of view" were expressed by the demonstrators. While some chanted for "freedom", others protested about compulsory vaccination of healthcare personnel. Some were vaccinated but against the use of the Covid Safe Ticket. Others were against both the vaccine and the CST, and some were against the media's handling of the coronavirus crisis and "disinformation".

Belgium's railway police, Securail, were called out on Sunday morning after reports of a crowded train of demonstrators heading to the Brussels protest, without wearing masks. The train was halted for 45 minutes and, after negotiations, the passengers agreed to put masks on and the train continued non-stop to Brussels.


The Belgian seaside resort of Knokke-Heist has decided to cancel all indoor sports and cultural activities as a temporary measure to limit the spread of coronavirus, as all nine intensive care beds in the local hospital are occupied (two of which are coronavirus patients). Virologist Marc Van Ranst is not impressed. "If we want to take new measures, it is better to do it at the federal level or at least in a territory larger than a single municipality," he said. "511 of the 581 municipalities in the country have a poorer health situation than Knokke-Heist. If you really want to do something, you have to tackle things like big birthday parties. You have to check which indoor activities are causing high contamination figures. To reduce the risks, CO2 sensors and good ventilation play a major role."

About two thirds of people hospitalised with Covid-19 are unvaccinated, while the other third are vaccinated people generally over the age of 75. "In certain age groups, some people no longer respond well to the vaccine and that's why the third dose is very useful," said interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem. "I don't think there will be a fourth wave, at least not in intensive care. The cases will increase but it will not be comparable to previous waves."

The numbers are clear: the coronavirus situation in Belgium is worsening. While there was no noticeable increase in infections when schools resumed and people returned to work, the colder weather in October brings more people indoors. "These are worrying figures," said federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke. "We must scrupulously apply the existing measures."

All of Belgium is now coloured red on the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control's coronavirus heatmap. Flanders had been orange until now. Red signifies that there are between 75 and 200 newly confirmed infections per 100,000 inhabitants in the past two weeks. Health minister Frank Vandenbroucke has warned that we should all brace ourselves for a sharp rise in infections and hospital admissions in the coming days. "We must prepare for a fourth wave," he said. "We must use all the means in our possession to contain the epidemic."

Christmas

While several Belgian cities have cancelled their Christmas markets, Brussels' Winter Wonders is - for now - still going ahead. But mayor Philippe Close has strongly advised unvaccinated people to stay away. "If you are not vaccinated, we do not recommend that you come, because there will be crowds," he said.

A large part of the Winter Wonders Christmas market in Brussels will shut down from 26 December, a week earlier than planned, following Wednesday's decisions by the consultative committee, after it was agreed that it would be impossible to enforce the limit of one person per 4m². The chalets along the Fishmarket, Place Sainte-Catherine, Bourse and Place de la Monnaie will not reopen after Christmas Day. Traders will receive compensation based on the number of lost days. The City of Brussels end-of-year fireworks are also cancelled. The ice rink at De Brouckère will remain open, as will the activities at the Bois de la Cambre, and the light and artistic intallations scattered around the city.

The city of Brussels has tightened Covid regulations for its Winter Wonders Christmas festivities following the latest coronavirus consultative committee meeting. It announced on Thursday that all visitors over 16 would need to acquire a bracelet each day to access activities. “This bracelet can be obtained at around 10 points spread around the route after a QR code check that the CST is valid, accompanied by an identity document,” it said.

The Covid Safe Ticket

The Walloon and Brussels governments are preparing to pass decrees that will extend the use of the Covid Safe Ticket from mid-January to mid-April. The Walloon text has been approved in first reading. According to Le Soir, Brussels has taken a similar decision. The Covid Safe Ticket was initially introduced in Brussels for a three-month period, from 15 October to 15 January.

The awareness-raising period for the Covid Safe Ticket in Brussels, when in theory no fines should be issued, came to an end on 1 November. The Brussels Capital-Ixelles police zone says it will begin "proactive patrols" from this date to ensure visitors and venue managers are using the ticket correctly.

A court in Namur has ruled that Wallonia’s policy requiring a Covid Safe Ticket for access to certain services is unlawful. The use of the CST was challenged in court by the group Notre Bon Droit, which bills itself as an ‘alliance of health-care workers, scientists, legal experts and citizens’. The court found that the CST might be in breach of EU law and of the proportionality principle, which dictates that restrictions much be in proportion to potential risks. The court also said that the CST could be seen as discriminatory and is in violation of privacy laws. Wallonia has seven days to rectify the situation. If it does not, it must pay a fine of €5,000 a day. The government is appealing the decision, during which the CST policy stays as it is. Bizarrely, due to holidays in November, the notice that the hearing was taking place was not received by Walloon authorities until it was too late, resulting in the region not being represented at the hearing. Notre Bon Droit has a similar case before the courts in Brussels; a decision is expected on 8 December.

Should the Covid Safe Ticket be renamed? Marc Van Ranst believes that using the word "safe" gives users a mistaken sense of total safety, while spending time in indoor spaces still comes with some risk. "From now on, let's call it the Covid pass or Covid certificate," Van Ranst added.

Since 1 November, the Covid Safe Ticket applies throughout Belgium - but with some slight differences between regions. Nationwide, it is compulsory from the age of 16 to access a restaurant or cafe (except the outdoor terrace), go to the gym, and from the age of 12 to visit someone in a hospital or retirement home. Sports clubs, museums, cinemas and theatres are also affected - but only in Brussels and Wallonia. The Covid Safe Ticket is also required to attend a cultural event bringing together more than 200 people indoors or 400 outdoors (in Flanders) and more than 50 indoors and 200 outdoors in Wallonia and Brussels. In Wallonia and Flanders, which are introducing the new measures today, there is no "tolerance period" when fines will not be issued. Brussels introduced the measures in mid-October and its awareness-raising period is now over.

Anyone suspected of falsifying a Covid Safe Ticket or Passenger Locator Form can soon be directly summoned to appear in court, the College of Prosecutors-General has announced. "Anyone who obviously tries to circumvent the measures, for example those relating to the use of the covid safe ticket, risks a particularly severe sanction," said the college's president, Ignacio de la Serna.

Asked by Bel RTL about the enforcement of the Covid Safe Ticket, Etterbeek mayor Vincent De Wolf, who chairs the committee of Brussels' 19 mayors, said: "I ask that police act with intelligence and understanding. If we realise that people are acting in good faith, we will not immediately sanction them." Etterbeek has hired students to carry out checks at the entrance to retirement homes, because existing staff are over-stretched caring for residents.

While Flanders has chosen not to implement any form of Covid Safe Ticket for the foreseeable future, several municipalities - especially in the Flemish periphery around Brussels - are keen to adopt stricter measures. Vilvoorde and Wemmel are looking at introducing new local rules to become more aligned with the Brussels region. Elsewhere in Flanders, Wevelgem, in West Flanders, has chosen to implement the Covid Safe Ticket for indoor events bringing together at least 100 people, while Oudsbergen, Limburg province, has closed its sports clubs and encouraged residents to go back to wearing a mask. Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said any municipalities that wanted to take a more cautious approach had his full support.

Anyone in Wallonia who cannot access their Covid Safe Ticket online or via the CovidSafe app can call a freephone call centre - 0800 45 019 - and ask for a paper version to be posted to them.

The manager of a cafe on Rue des Poissonniers in downtown Brussels was stabbed after refusing to serve a customer who did not have their Covid Safe Ticket. The Brussels public prosecutor said the customer has been charged with violence resulting in the incapacity to work, and carrying a weapon.

The owner of a café in Waremme, Liège province, has set up a drop-in centre to help anyone having difficulty obtaining their Covid Safe Ticket. Arnaud Delchambre hopes that by giving up two mornings a week now, he can avoid having to turn customers away on 1 November when the Covid Safe Ticket is implemented in Wallonia. "You go to the site, they tell you to put in your Itsme code. I have two minutes to try to do it, and then I have to start all over again," one frustrated customer said.

Several hundred people from the anti-vaccine movement gathered in front of Pfizer's headquarters in Ixelles to protest against the implementation of the Covid Safe Ticket. Protesters said the ticket limited their freedom of movement and was a means of "controlling the population", as "the government knows where and and what time you visit somewhere".

All over-65s in the Brussels region who are fully vaccinated will receive a Covid Safe Ticket by post in the coming days. Some 65,000 senior citizens are affected - many of whom do not have access to a smartphone or the means of printing a document from the internet.

There are three ways to obtain a Covid Safe Ticket. You can download it online via masante.belgique.be (you will need an e-ID reader or have set up the ItsMe app), or download the CovidSafeBe smartphone app. Alternatively, it's possible to receive a printed certificate by post. In Brussels, the call centre number is 02 214 19 19.

Outside Brussels, the Covid Safe Ticket is required for all events with an audience of at least 500 people indoors and 750 outdoors. In Brussels, it applies from 50 people indoors and 200 outdoors.

Between 800 and 1,000 people demonstrated in Liège against the introduction of the Covid Safe Ticket in Wallonia. "We find the health pass completely discriminatory and anti-democratic," said one of the event's organisers. "We are the victims, we were not consulted and we had no choice."

Francophone education minister Caroline Désir has confirmed that the Covid Safe Ticket will not apply to students or teachers taking part in extra-curricular activities, such as school trips to a sports club or theatre.

Cafes, restaurants and nightclubs

A €66 million package of extra financial support for the catering and hospitality industries has been approved by the Belgian federal government, to allow staff to be paid their end-of-year bonus. Other temporary measures to help employees with the coronavirus fallout have also been extended to the end of the first quarter of 2022. These include temporary unemployment due to force majeure for all sectors, and access to unemployment benefits for parents obliged to keep their child at home due to quarantine. The "droit passerelle" payout for self-employed people in sectors forced to close, such as nightclubs, is also extended. Affected freelancers in these sectors can also ask to have their social security contributions postponed. So far this year, 300,000 people have benefited from the coronavirus temporary unemployment scheme.

The introduction of the Covid Safe Ticket in Brussels cafes and restaurants on 15 October does not apply to outdoor terraces - but what if a non-vaccinated customer needs to visit the toilet? "When someone is on a terrace, who does not have a Covid Safe Ticket, and they want to go to the bathroom inside the restaurant, they will have to put on a mask," a spokeswoman for Brussels minister-president Rudi Vervoort has confirmed.

Health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said customers should boycott cafes and restaurants that do not take the Covid Safe Ticket seriously. "If I go to a cafe or a restaurant and they don't use the corona pass, I'll leave. I want to feel safe," he told Radio 1.

The likelihood of nightlife being shut down again comes after growing doubts about the effectiveness of the Covid Safe Ticket in clubs. Epidemiologist Erika Vlieghe, who leads the GEMS expert group, believes the CST is not enough in such enclosed spaces where safe distancing cannot be maintained, and recommends the addition of compulsory testing at the entrance. Health minister Frank Vandenbroucke believes it could become necessary to limit access to nightclubs to people who are vaccinated - and not to the unvaccinated who have recently tested negative.

Some nightclubs and event venues have been offering rapid antigen tests to visitors who turn up without a valid Covid Safe Ticket. If the result is negative, the customer receives a bracelet or a stamp on their hand granting them access to the venue. But a word of warning: the result is not considered valid, in the event of a police check. The result should be registered on the online testing platform and a test certificate generated. An antigen test without generating a QR code is therefore considered a bogus test and is not admissible. "It's the Covid Safe Ticket or nothing," a health ministry spokesman said. "Each test must be registered for tracing purposes."

Undercover reporters from Bruzz have been busy visiting pubs in downtown Brussels to see how many are respecting the Covid Safe Ticket rules. Staff in three-quarters of the venues visited did not ask to see it. Some bar staff said they were too overwhelmed with their regular work to spend time checking everyone's vaccination status. "It's unfeasible for us," one said. "Customers walk in and out all evening, it's hard to keep chasing them all the time." Another added: "The relationship with our customers has completely changed now that the CST has been introduced." Several cafes have hired a security guard on the door to carry out checks, due to aggressive behaviour from customers.

Brussels police have begun their first on-the-spot checks to ensure compliance with the Covid Safe Ticket in the city's cafes and restaurants, with reporters and TV cameramen in tow. Police are also reminding cafe staff that they should check customers' ID cards and not just their ticket. "A young man sitting in a cafe showed us his companion's QR code," said police inspector Nicolas Beckers. "The owner of the establishment had scanned the code at the entrance. The code was valid, but it was not that of the individual in question."

After a year and a half of total closure, several nightclubs in Belgium reopened their doors at midnight on 1 October, including the Jeux d'Hiver in Brussels. Since 1 October, dancing has also been allowed in cafes and the 1.00 closing time is lifted. 

Hospitals

Hospitals and nursing homes are looking for hundreds of interim workers, freelancers and students to work in the midst of the fourth wave. Besides the intense work pressure that comes along with Covid, staff often fall sick with the virus or need time off for the holidays. “We are getting everything done but only because we have been able to employ people on student contracts, who are still studying,” said Johan Demuynck of Zorgbedrijf Antwerpen, which runs nursing homes and assisted living facilities. “We are also looking to temp agencies and the self-employed to jump in if they can.”

The Risk Management Group has decided to scrap the requirement for fully vaccinated nursing staff to quarantine after a high-risk contact with an infected person, while they await their test result, public health institute Sciensano has announced. Staff can continue to work provided they are asymptomatic and do not live in the same home as the high-risk contact. The temporary relaxation, for the next four weeks, is described as an exceptional measure, due to a sharp increase in new infections, to ensure continuity of care and avoid a shortage of frontline medical staff. It does not apply to cleaning, kitchen and other logistical staff in hospitals and care homes.

With more than 800 Covid patients in intensive care, frontline healthcare staff are struggling. According to some nursing federations, long-term absenteeism due to burnout affects 30% of staff. Jérôme Tack, president of Siz-Nursing, the federation of intensive care nurses, said: "After the first wave, a study had shown that 68% of intensive care personnel were in risk of burnout. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then. Between waves, we have to catch up with patients who have seen their treatment delayed. As a result, our services have been overloaded for two years and the staff are increasingly tired."

Healthcare workers opposed to compulsory vaccination demonstrated in Brussels on Tuesday morning. Unions are against the plan to suspend staff who refuse to get vaccinated in the new year, and remove their licence to practise from April. They say they were not consulted beforehand. "It is not nursing staff who are infecting the population," the unions said in a joint statement. "Compliance with the rules is at the heart of our profession at all times."

Joëlle Durbecq, director of the nursing department at Saint-Luc university hospital, told RTBF: "It's difficult to convince the 10% of non-vaccinated staff collectively. You have to do it individually, go to the person and try to understand why they do not want to be vaccinated. It has become an individual job." She added: "We already have a lot of absent staff, whether for reasons of Covid circulating, or because classes are closing and parents are looking after their children. All this adds to the shortage of nurses that has been talked about for a long time." For these non-vaccinated staff, "our schedules for January have already been drawn up, on the assumption that theye will be able to work," she said. "If they are not, we will have to start all over again and, inevitably, some care units will have to be closed." Recruiting replacements for nurses who are laid off "will take several years", she warned.


A doctor in Wallonia is facing prosecution on forgery charges for allegedly issuing more than 2,000 Covid Safe Tickets to unvaccinated people, for a fee. The doctor is accused of registering false details in the Vaccinet database, after the Walloon health agency Aviq spotted "an astronomical number" of vaccine details being updated by a single GP, for patients all over the region. "This is extremely serious because it contravenes all the rules that have been put in place and endangers the entire population," the Charleroi public prosecutor's office said. If found guilty, the doctor faces between five and 10 years in prison. Those who paid for a Covid Safe Ticket could also face prosecution. In any case, they will receive an invitation in the post to get vaccinated. A black market in Covid Safe Tickets has clearly emerged online, RTBF reports. One reporter found a doctor on the Telegram messaging app willing to update the Belgian vaccination database for €350, or €300 per person for a group of three.

UZ Brussel university hospital in Jette has moved to phase 1A+ of its intensive care capacity management plan. One in three ICU beds is now reserved for Covid patients. This represents 12 beds. Last week, eight of them were already occupied. The hospital is also postponing some elective operations. "Autumn has traditionally been the busiest time in hospitals as all respiratory illnesses arrive," said hospital director Marc Noppen. "The routine care postponed from previous waves has been largely caught up, which means the staff have been working hard." Noppen added that 85% of coronavirus patients admitted to UZ Brussel were not vaccinated, which he described as "regrettable and frustrating". He added: "The vast majority of these admissions could have been avoided."

Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke has put forward a draft law that would see non-vaccinated healthcare personnel lose their licence to practise on 1 April next year. The loss of accreditation would apply to a broad range of professions, from doctors and nurses to paramedics and pharmacists. "A large number of these people are already vaccinated," Vandenbroucke said. "But it is important that everyone does, to protect themselves and their patients."

Vaccines

Belgium's health ministers have followed the Superior Health Council's advice and approved the vaccination of five to 11-year-olds. "This will be done on a voluntary basis, with the consent of the parents," a spokesperson for federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke confirmed. Priority will be reserved for children with underlying health conditions. Access to areas of public life such as sports, culture and restaurants will not be restricted based on a child's vaccination status, unlike the Covid Safe Ticket scheme for adults. Children aged five to 11 will receive two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Each dose will be three times less strong than the dose given to teenagers and adults. It is expected to offer six months of protection, so a booster dose is likely to be needed in the summer.

The booster dose of the coronavirus vaccine is now available earlier than first planned. Anyone who received the Pfizer or Moderna job initially had to wait six months before they could book an appointment for an extra dose. The gap has now been reduced to four months. The gap remains four months for the Astra-Zeneca vaccine and two months for Johnson & Johnson. If you had already booked a vaccination appointment for the six-month mark, you can cancel it and reschedule for an earlier date on the QVAX (Wallonia and Flanders) and Bru-Vax websites. In Brussels, the earliest available appointments are in late December. The region's vaccination centres will stay open over the festive break.

An investigation is under way to find out how a Charleroi man managed to get himself vaccinated eight times - each time in someone else's name - in order to obtain Covid Safe Tickets for his mates. L'Avenir reports that the man went to the same vaccination centre each time. After the eighth visit, staff started to get suspicious. When he turned up for a ninth jab, he was turned away.

Two doctors in Walloon Brabant and a staff member at a vaccination centre in Tubize are being investigated for allegedly making hundreds of fraudulent updates to the Vaccinet database, allowing people who have not received the jab to receive their Covid Safe Ticket. They have all had their access to the database revoked until the investigation is complete.

Belgium received its first supply of coronavirus vaccines for children. The shipment includes 336,000 doses of Pfizer for five- to 11-year-olds. They are packaged in bright yellow bottles to distinguish them from adult doses. Children receive a much smaller does than do teenagers and adults. The Superior Health Council is currently discussing the administering of Covid vaccines to children and will deliver its advice to the coronavirus taskforce by next week. Governmental ministers will then take the decision how to arrange the vaccination campaign. It is expected that the first jabs will be administered in January.

Belgium is one of Europe’s top countries for the number of people who have already received the booster jab, with more than one in four having received it. In Brussels, more than 17% of the population have been boosted, with numbers in Flanders and Wallonia at 32% and nearly 28% respectively. In the German-speaking region, the figure is nearly 26%.

The federal government has approved a proposal to allow pharmacists to administer vaccination jabs. The proposal has been sent to the Council of State to weigh in before becoming legislation. The Belgian Association of Physicians is against the idea, saying that intramuscular injections should only be delivered by doctors, nurses, dentists and midwives, as is now the case.

Five vaccination centres in Brussels are offering the coronavirus and flu jabs at the same time. Anyone wanting to benefit from both vaccines at once needs to go to their pharmacist first, with a prescription to buy the flu jab. It is reimbursed for people over 50, those with a chronic illness, people who are obese, pregnant women and healthcare workers. If you were wondering: the Covid vaccine goes in your right arm and the flu in your left.

Everyone in Brussels aged 18 and older can register now for the ‘booster’ corona jab. This third dose of the vaccine will eventually be offered to everyone in Belgium, but while the other regions will be working according to invitations, Brussels is accepting registrations immediately. Residents can register at Bruvax, but the system will take into consideration the date of the second jab. There must be period of two months between the second jab and booster for anyone who received Johnson & Johnson, four months for anyone who received AstraZeneca and six months for those who got Pfizer or Moderna. Some 1.3 million people in Belgium have already gotten the booster jab, mostly nursing home residents and those with autoimmune disorders.

Some 39,000 Brussels residents have already made an appointment to get their booster jab. The Bruvax website began accepting registrations yesterday (see news item below). The third dose of the corona vaccine is already being administered to nursing home residents and care workers, and Brussels has now opened up registrations to all residents. Vaccination co-ordinator Inge Neven says that there are enough vaccines to provide 320,000 residents with the jab by the middle of January.

Belgium's health ministers have agreed on a timetable for the rollout of the third dose of the coronavirus vaccine for the general public. There will be no priority groups, such as teachers for example. Instead, the order in which invitations will be sent out is based on the date you received your last dose, and which vaccine you received. Those who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine more than two months ago should already have already received their invitation for a booster jab. Letters will be sent out four months after receiving the Astra-Zeneca vaccine and six months after the last dose of the Pfizer or Moderna jab. The goal is to have offered everyone an extra dose of the vaccine by the end of March. Once everyone has been offered an extra dose of the coronavirus vaccine, the rules for obtaining a Covid Safe Ticket will be adapted accordingly, said federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke.

Some 72% of the adult population in the Brussels region is now fully vaccinated, Cocom's Covid manager Inge Neven has confirmed. Some 25,400 doses have been administered in Brussels in the past week, including 6,100 first doses.

The vaccination of six to 12-year-olds, for which Belgium is currently awaiting the green light from the European Medicines Agency, should not be rushed, according to Dimitri Van der Linden, from Belgium's Pediatric Task Force. "The first data on the vaccination of the youngest are reassuring in terms of vaccine safety and efficacy," he said. "But there remains an important unanswered question: to what extent should children be immunised massively when more than a million adults have not yet done the same? Vaccinating a child may be necessary or useful if they spend time with a relative who is immunocompromised or fragile, but on a larger scale, we must not forget the ethical and societal issues."

In theory, an employer cannot find out if a member of staff is vaccinated. But, in practice, it is possible - in Brussels at least - with just the employee's national register number and postcode. Inputting these two pieces of information into the Bru-Vax website will bring up an error message: "You are not eligible for vaccination" if you have already had the jab, De Tijd and Le Soir report.

Brussels' Common Community Commission (Cocom) has acknowledged that a security loophole in the Bru-Vax system makes it possible to check whether someone else has been vaccinated, if you know their national register number and their postcode. "Investigations are under way," said Inge Neven, in charge of the region's vaccination programme. "We must respect privacy and therefore protect the system. If necessary, it will have to be adapted to meet our obligations."

Belgium's Superior Health Council has recommended a booster jab for anyone who received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine. "A study in the US on more than 700,000 people shows that the protection provided by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine wears off significantly over time," said ULB immunology professor Michel Goldman. "These results are anything but a surprise. We know that vaccines that are based on this technology require two doses to induce the production of high levels of protective antibodies, especially over several months." This is particularly important because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was given to some of the most vulnerable in society, including homeless people and migrants. The Superior Health Council has yet to decide on whether a third dose is necessary for people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine, which uses a similar technology.

Every Belgian resident will be offered a third dose of the coronavirus vaccine (or a second dose in the case of the Johnson & Johnson jab), Belgium's health ministers have agreed. The practical details of the third vaccine rollout will be decided on 27 November. Appointment invitations should be sent out approximately eight months after you received your last dose. Over-65s and other vulnerable groups have already been offered a third jab.

The health ministers of each of Belgium's regions have reached an agreement on the rollout of a third dose of the coronavirus vaccine for over-65s. Invitations will be sent out at least four months after the second dose of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine was administered, and at least six months after the second Pfizer or Moderna jab. The third dose will always be a messenger RNA vaccine (so Pfizer or Moderna, not Astra-Zeneca). Invitations will be sent out in descending age order, starting with over-85s. Residents of nursing homes and people with underlying health conditions are also being invited for a third dose.

Woluwe-Saint-Pierre was the first of Brussels' 19 municipalities to achieve the goal of 70% fully vaccinated adults, Cocom coronavirus manager Inge Neven said this week. Molenbeek is last, currently with 43%. The Covid-19 situation in Brussels is relatively stable. New infections per fortnight are at 761 per 100,000, while the national average is 937. Hospitalisations are much lower than this time last year - 24 per day, instead of 110 - which suggests that the vaccine is working.

Belgium will deliver almost double its overseas vaccine donation pledge by the end of the year, federal minister for development cooperation Meryame Kitir has announced. The country had pledged to give four million doses to other countries, but is now expected to have distributed 7.3 million by the end of 2021. In the coming weeks, 3.8 million doses of the single-jab Johnson & Johnson will be handed over to the Covax mechanism. Since the start of the year, vaccines donated by Belgium have been delivered to Rwanda, Senegal, Tunisia and Uganda.

Four people queuing for a coronavirus mobile vaccination unit in Anderlecht were slightly injured after the ventilation grill they were standing on gave way under their weight. The four were taken to hospital for check-ups after falling down a four-metre-deep gap while sheltering from the rain as they awaited their turn at the Vacci-Bus.

The Brussels region has achieved its target of fully vaccinating 70% of over-18s, Inge Neven from the Common Community Commission (Cocom) has confirmed. She said there had been a 26% increase in a week in the number of people getting their first dose, thanks to the introduction of the Covid Safe Ticket. Meanwhile, some 39% of 12 to 17-year-olds in the capital have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The Brussels region currently has an incidence rate of 637 new infections per 100,000 population per fortnight, and an infection rate of 1.23.

At this stage, there is "no scientific evidence" that a third dose of the coronavirus vaccine should be systematically offered to everyone in Belgium, according to Dirk Ramaekers, head of the vaccination taskforce. He said there was no sign that immunity decreases over time among young and healthy people. Flanders announced this weekend that it planned to offer a third dose to anyone over the age of 12, although the final decision rests with Belgium's Superior Health Council. "I would therefore like to know what scientific justification the Flemish government is using to announce this third dose," Ramaekers added. "The top priority now is to give vaccines to countries where vaccination operations are less advanced. We have already given around three million doses to Covax and there will be more."

While 85% of people in Wallonia are vaccinated, the region's minister-president Elio Di Rupo is disappointed that others are still refusing. "Some people seem not to understand," he told Bel RTL. "It's too easy to say [not getting vaccinated] is in the name of freedom. I am the biggest defender of individual freedoms. But if you die free, you're still dead. Yesterday, I was in Brussels and I was asked for my Covid Safe Ticket. I did not feel that part of my freedom was being taken away."

According to UAntwerpen professor of vaccinology Pierre Van Damme, a member of Belgium's Superior Health Council, "we must abandon the idea that a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is sufficient". As with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, he says it is time to start offering a booster jab to over-65s who received this jab. The single-dose Johnson & Johnson was given to 400,000 people in Belgium - including several hard-to-reach groups such as the homeless and undocumented migrants.

News that the Covid Safe Ticket will be introduced at many venues in Wallonia  has prompted a sharp increase in people registering for a vaccination appointment in the region. Walloon health minister Christie Morreale said: "In the 24 hours after the announcement, we recorded five times more appointments to get vaccinated (4,000 in a single day). Plus, many people turned up spontaneously to get vaccinated without an appointment."

Masks

Wearing a mask at indoor public places applies to anyone aged 10 and over. Previously, the rules applied from the age of 12. Brussels public transport operator Stib has updated its message on vehicles accordingly. In the Francophone school system, 10 and 11-year-olds do not need to wear a mask in class. In the Dutch-speaking system, masks have been required for children in the fifth and sixth years of primary school since 8 November.

Belgium has reinstated the requirement to wear masks in indoor public spaces and the strong recommendation to work from home, following a 109% increase in new coronavirus infections in the past fortnight. Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo said the coronavirus consultative committee meeting had met urgently in response to "a sudden and very rapid" increase in infection numbers. Read all the details here...

Wearing a mask outdoors is widely considered unnecessary - but the City of Brussels has voted to keep the rule in place on its busiest shopping street, Rue Neuve, for an additional month. Mayor Philippe Close said the measure would be reassessed from one month to the next, given that we are approaching a busy shopping season, with Black Friday, Christmas and the January sales.

While Wallonia decided to not relax the rules on mask-wearing from 1 October, a legal anomaly made the rules unenforceable for the first 36 hours. A provincial decree had to be signed by the governors of all five Walloon provinces and sent to every mayor. This did not happen until the afternoon of 2 October. Maxime Daye, president of the Walloon Union of Cities and Towns, said: "It looks like, on 30 September, someone in the Walloon administration suddenly remembered that no decision had been taken. There is a legal vacuum between 1 October and 14.38 on 2 October." Anyone fined for not respecting the mask rules during this period can, in theory, have the fine overturned.

Healthcare

The Red Cross has made another urgent appeal for blood donations. Blood stocks had recovered well after the previous appeal at the end of July, but are now at critically low levels. Many routine blood donation exercises - in businesses and schools - have not gone ahead this year. See www.donneurdesang.be

Positive tests for HIV infection fell by one-fifth in 2020, according to health research institute Sciensano. The main reason is that fewer tests were carried out because of lockdowns and avoidance of non-emergency medical interventions. But even acute infections later in the year were significantly down. This was the result of lockdowns, social distancing and other measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, says the institute.

All hospitals in Belgium have moved to phase 1B in their intensive care capacity plan. This means that 50% of intensive care beds in the country must be reserved for coronavirus patients and non-urgent operations are likely to be postponed. This last happened in late February, at the beginning of the third wave, which eventually led to intensive care units reaching a peak of 941 coronavirus patients by mid-April.

"What is coming back to me from hospitals is very worrying. I want to warn the population of the seriousness of the situation," said federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke. "Everywhere, it will be necessary to take severe measures so that everyone can continue to work and that classes can continue in schools. The delta variant of the disease is particularly dangerous. People have to be vaccinated. Without the vaccine, the whole country would be closed."

The federal government has finalised a bill making vaccination compulsory for healthcare personnel. From 1 January, staff will have three months to get vaccinated. Those who refuse face temporary unemployment and, from April, permanent job loss. About 500,000 people work in the affected sectors - of whom almost 90% are already fully vaccinated.

An estimated 300,000 to 350,000 people in Belgium are suffering some form of "long Covid", with symptoms continuing six months after infection. According to Ann Li, founder of the Flemish Association of Post-Covid Patients, the most common long-term symptoms range from muscle pain and tiredness to memory loss.

Culture

Representatives from the Belgian cultural sector have lodged their urgent appeal with the Council of State to overturn the latest coronavirus measures, which ordered theatres and cinemas to close. "This measure is unfounded, unfair and completely disproportionate," the Federation of Performing Arts Employers, FEAS said. It hopes for a decision from the Council of State by the end of the week. Representatives from theatres, cinemas, concert halls and cultural centres were due to hold a virtual meeting with health minister Frank Vandenbroucke on Tuesday morning to put forward their arguments to stay open.

The president of the PS party, Paul Magnette, said politicians should have the "humility" to admit a mistake was made at the coronavirus consultative committee meeting last week. "I understand and I fully agree with the criticisms made against us by the world of culture," he said. "There is no shame, as a politician, in admitting that we make mistakes. Let us try to understand the origins of them and see how to correct them." He added that it did not make sense to discuss the closure of a sector such as culture without having the country's culture ministers present at the meeting.


Is the refusal by mayors and police to enforce the cinema and theatre shutdown a turning point in how Belgium manages the coronavirus crisis? Pascal Delwit, a political scientist at ULB, said the scale of civil disobedience is remarkable: "This is quite rare. If a public authority refuses to implement or exercise what has been decided by another public authority, it then becomes difficult to enforce compliance with other rules and standards."

Representatives from the Belgian cultural sector plan to lodge an urgent appeal with the Council of State against the consultative committee's latest coronavirus rules, in the hope of having them overturned. The appeal is based on the principle of equality. Somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 people - depending on whose estimate you believe - gathered around the Mont des Arts for a peaceful protest on Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile, Belgium's national crisis centre has contacted the governors of each of Belgium's 10 provinces to ask them to ensure that police enforce the latest coronavirus restrictions, including the ban on indoor cultural events such as cinema screenings. 

Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke has defended the decision to shut down cinemas, theatres and other indoor events venues, after widespread backlash from the culture sector and politicians alike, including the Ecolo, cdH and PTB parties. "It is we politicians who are responsible," said Vandenbroucke. "I never hide behind the experts. Experts give advice. They had said that nothing should be closed except in the case of bad numbers where they advocated total closure of a whole series of sectors. If there is a positive development in the figures, I am ready to quickly review what has been decided for culture." Prime minister Alexander De Croo added: "At the consultative committee, 14 members take decisions collectively. To say that there was a selective reading of the experts' reports is insulting to those who sit on the committee. They are not there to make political deals. They are there to take considered measures."

The cultural sector had invested heavily in recent months to ensure good ventilation, CO² meters and other equipment. Several venues took part in a civil disobedience movement on Sunday - the first day on which they meant to close their doors - with several cinemas vowing to stay open. A number of mayors in the municipalities of Brussels said they had no plans to send police to carry out spot checks on cinemas and theatres. This includes the Brussels/Ixelles police zone, where cinemas including Vendôme, Palace, Cinematek and Galéries intend to stay open. "We don't have time to check up on cinemas," a police spokeswoman said. A demonstration was also held on the Mont des Arts in central Brussels on Sunday afternoon.


Le Grignoux, which operates three cinemas in Liège and one in Namur, has announced that it plans to ignore the order to close from 26 December. "We have been preparing for this holiday season for months," a spokesman said. "We have 150 employees and we were expecting to sell 40,000 tickets during this holiday season. In a year and a half we have lost more than 50% of our turnover. Cinemas are safe places, we cannot accept a third closure. It's time to say stop."

Representatives from the cultural sector - and several scientific experts - have criticised the government's decision to shut down indoor cultural events, including cinema screenings and theatre performances. The GEMS expert panel that advises the consultative committee had not suggested doing so - only mentioning that it could be necessary later, if the situation worsens. ULB epidemiologist Marius Gilbert describes the move as "completely arbitrary", adding: "I don't think people realise the political haggling that takes place during a consultative commitee meeting. Their decisions are having damaging consequences on confidence and ultimately on social cohesion. We should not be surprised, in a week, if alongside the extreme right, we find cultural players, healthcare staff, all sectors of the population who feel mistreated by the way the crisis is managed." He said the government was "losing its legitimacy from one week to the next". Interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem described the decision to shut down indoor culture as an "aberration", while his colleague Steven Van Gucht said shutting cinemas and theatres "was only a plan B for us" and that family get-togethers in private homes was the biggest risk this festive season. Epidemiologist Yves Coppieters added: "It is sad that we have come to this", while virologist Marc Van Ranst said: "Mulled wine has won over culture." Pierre François, chief executive of the football Pro League said of the decision to ban spectators from football matches: "This decision will hurt and there is a big concern because it is unlikely that the supporters will be back in January." A spokeswoman for retail federation Comeos said the decision to limit shopping to two people "is not logical because in restaurants one can still accommodate six people".

Cinemas, theatres and concert halls must close on Sunday (26 December), and Christmas markets cannot use marquees or tents, Belgium's coronavirus consultative committee has ruled. Read all the details here...

Education and young people

All nursery and primary schools in Belgium will close for the Christmas holidays a week earlier than planned, on Friday 17 December, and secondary school pupils will switch to a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning next week, Belgium's coronavirus consultative committee has announced. From Monday, indoor events - including concerts, theatre performances and cinema screenings - cannot have more than 200 attendees. Read all the details here...

The owners of several indoor play areas in Flanders and Brussels have lodged an urgent appeal with the Council of State to try to overturn last weekend's royal decree ordering that they must close. "We are convinced that we can safely contribute to the wellbeing of children," the group said.

What are your options as an employee during the unexpected week of school closure from 20-24 December? If you have used up your annual leave entitlement, temporary unemployment due to force majeure is an option, which is paid at 70% of your regular salary, capped at €2,840.84 gross per month. Laura Couchard, legal advisor at Acerta, says employers and employees should negotiate flexible working arrangements. "A long lunch break, for example, to be with children and make up for those hours of work in the evening."

The Wallonia-Brussels Federation has released a €3 million budget to support schools in the purchase of CO² alarms, which are now required in every classroom. However, there is a big shortage in the market for these devices as demand massively outstrips supply.

The decision to wait until the end of next week - Friday 17 December - before closing schools is "absurd", says interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem. Closing schools in two weeks only postpones the beneficial effect of the measure, which could have led to a better epidemiological situation in time for the Christmas holidays. "I'm really disappointed that we negotiated a watering down of this measure," Van Laethem said. "Science does not work like that. Now is the time that we need to relieve hospitals and stop this fourth wave as quickly as possible."


Primary school children must wear masks to school from this Monday. "I ask parents not to take out their anger against teachers or school directors," said Francophone education minister Caroline Désir. "They did not choose this measure, they comply with it, like me." The rules allow "moments of pause" when all children are seated and their masks can be removed. The length and regularity of these breaks is not specified.

Indoor play areas must also be closed from this Monday. The measure was not announced at last week's press conference, but appears in the royal decree published this weekend.


A new study by UCLouvain and ULB reveals the impact coronavirus is having on students' mental health and wellbeing. More than 3,000 students took part in the survey between April and June this year. Seven out of 10 respondents said they were "very" stressed and a third showed symptoms of severe anxiety. Just over a third reported moderate insomnia. Some 29% of students said they had sought help from a healthcare professional.

Schoolchildren, who are largely unvaccinated, are "the engine of the pandemic" at the moment, confirms biostatistician Geert Molenberghs. "They don't get sick themselves, but it's a problem for society. We have to try to stop this." The coronavirus incidence rate is at its highest among children under nine. They are among the least likely to be tested when symptoms arrive - but among those who do take a test, 25% of the results come back positive.

All secondary school staff and students in the French-speaking education system are now required to wear masks in class again. The rules, which were already in place in Brussels, are now extended to Wallonia. In French-speaking primary schools, masks are compulsory for staff, but not pupils.

The ban on school trips with overnight stays will run until at least the February half-term holidays, according to a circular sent to schools by Francophone education minister Caroline Désir.

Belgium's Francophone education minister has announced modified rules concerning the wearing of masks in schools, which will bring the measures in Wallonia into line with those already in place in Brussels. In all French-speaking secondary schools, teachers and students must wear a mask at all times when indoors. Until now, in Wallonia, students could remove their mask once seated. Primary school teachers must wear a mask in class. The rules come into force after the Toussaint half-term holiday.

Staff working for the health service in Belgium's French-speaking school system have announced a partial strike, meaning they will refuse to carry out any coronavirus-related work. The PSE is responsible for managing the coronavirus situation in schools - contacting parents whose children have come into contact with an infected pupil or staff member, closing classes and requiring quarantine where necessary, as well as overseeing the vaccination campaign in secondary schools. Since Monday, none of this work is being done, as staff complain they are overworked. Faced with this latest strike, school directors are having to manage their coronavirus communication to parents by themselves. "We no longer have a contact person in the event that a positive case occurs in our schools," said one school principal in Dinant. Another, in Anderlecht, added: "We refuse to do the health service's job. We are not empowered to close classes without medical advice." Bénédicte Linard, the minister in charge of Francophone school healthcare, is in discussions with the regional health agencies Aviq in Wallonia and Cocom in Brussels to take over the job of contact-tracing among school pupils and staff.

Belgium's Federation of Scouts has seen new members treble in a year, following the coronavirus stay-at-home period. "There are waiting lists in certain groups," said a group spokesman. There are 180,000 Scouts in Belgium.

Care homes and the elderly

Elderly and vulnerable people should start to limit their contacts with other people indoors, according to coronavirus commissioner Pedro Facon. He told Radio 1: "It is important to meet as much as possible outdoors and to ensure good ventilation in indoor spaces. If this is not possible, masks and distancing are important."

Travel

Brussels Airlines has reported a significant improvement in bookings in recent weeks, with travellers making more long-term holiday plans - and not just booking quick trips at the last minute. "This is a very positive sign, which shows that our customers are also seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and that they are starting to plan their holidays for 2022," the airline said. Brussels Airlines will add 29 European destinations to its summer schedule, three in the Middle East, 18 in Africa and two in North America. Popular Spanish destinations will be served several times a day, and the airline is reinforcing its flight schedule to the Greek Islands.

A total of 820 people were caught with a fake or expired PCR test at Brussels Airport, “over the last few months,” according to the Halle-Vilvoorde public prosecutor. Falsified tests are considered forgery and thus a criminal offense. Police offer the would-be passengers two options: Pay a fine of €750 or appear in court. Some 80% choose the fine. Those who appear in court risk prison time and much higher fines. A court in Brussels has already handed out sentences of six months in prison and fines of up to €1,200. In Halle-Vilvoorde, the public prosecutor asked that 16 people who appeared in court this morning be given six months and fines of €1,600. “This is about antisocial behaviour by people who pretend that corona is someone else’s problem,” the prosecutor said. “We have a zero tolerance for this.” The court will hand out sentences next month.

The federal government has agreed to grant an extra €33.7 million in aid to the SNCB and Infrabel to compensate them for losses linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. The SNCB will receive €27 million, due to the loss of ticket revenue as commuters stay at home. Infrabel receives €6.7 million as it lost money due to reduced use of its track network. Train occupancy is currently estimated at about 80% of what it was before the pandemic.

The SNCB's Coast Express service will run again next summer, but without the need for reservation. The system was set up last summer to avoid overcrowding on trains to the Belgian seaside. The trains will run direct from various Belgian cities - making it easier for the SNCB to handle crowd control and ensure an even distribution of passengers on each train.

The SNCB has had to cancel about 100 trains per day (out of 3,800), due to staff either testing positive for coronavirus or having to quarantine. The rail operator said it wanted to "limit the inconvenience as much as possible by temporarily adapting its offer and thus prevent trains from having to be canceled unexpectedly every day". The SNCB said that rush-hour trains would have as many carriages as platform space allows, to try to avoid overcrowding.

Belgian rail operator SNCB will no longer require passengers to wear a mask on station platforms - provided they are outdoors, federal mobility minister Georges Gilkinet has confirmed.

Policing

At least 3,500 people joined the "March for Freedom: Act 3" in Brussels, according to police estimates, in protest against the current coronavirus restrictions, the Covid Safe Ticket and compulsory vaccination for healthcare workers. Organisers claimed 37,000 people were present. Estimates by some reporters on the ground put the figure in the middle, at about 15,000. Police made 48 administrative and seven judicial arrests. Some vandals attacked police with firecrackers and glass bottles. Police responded with tear gas. An RTBF journalist was attacked by several demonstrators. The broadcaster will file a formal complaint.

Resistance to the coronavirus measures has grown in recent months and is leading to more polarisation, extremism and threats, warns a new report by Ocam, the Belgian coordinating body for threat analysis. Ocam points to the various demonstrations in Brussels recently. "Organisations from various walks of life have joined forces for the first time to criticise the handling of the pandemic," the report said. "Hate speech towards politicians, the media and virologists seems to be becoming more and more socially accepted."

A court in Mechelen has acquitted Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst, after a Dutch coronavirus sceptic accused the scientist of making defamatory remarks about him on Twitter. Willem Engel was ordered to pay €4,000 in damages to Van Ranst, which the virologist will donate to Unicef to support the Covax system of vaccine distribution in developing countries.

Eleven police officers in Molenbeek who took part in a Christmas dinner, in breach of the coronavirus rules at the time, will each be fined €250. The officers had posted a photo on social media of themselves packed around a table, enjoying a raclette. Meals at the time were limited to your family bubble.

The possible toughening of coronavirus restrictions later this week is likely to be accompanied by a more repressive phase of policing. New analysis by RTBF shows a direct correlation between the number of fines issued during previous waves of coronavirus and the peaks in infection numbers. From the Brussels Capital/Ixelles police zone to a small rural police zone in Luxembourg province, the trends were same: heightened awareness of worsening coronavirus numbers was accompanied by more police fines for breaching the rules. In central Brussels, a record 9,365 fines were issued in a single month last year - April 2020, during the height of the first wave.

The federal police have identified seven of the 19 suspects sought for rioting during the protest against Belgium’s corona policies that took place on 21 November. The police placed photos and descriptions of the suspects online yesterday – starting with 16 and eventually reaching 19 suspects – and asked for help in identifying them. The seven identified have been sent a notice to appear in court. The suspects are being charged with destruction of public property, looting of private property or assault.

The federal police have released images of 16 people who are wanted in connection with riots that took place during the protest on 21 November in Brussels. Some 35,000 people took to the streets to protest against the government’s corona policies and required vaccination of care workers. Rioters smashed windows, damaged public infrastructure, set fires, looted a supermarket and destroyed police vehicles. Three police officers were injured and signed off work, one for four weeks. People are asked to contact the police if they recognise any of the people in the photos.

Testing

If a surge in the omicron variant arrives this Christmas, Brussels' coronavirus testing capacity could exceed capacity at the beginning of January, according to Inge Neven, head of coronavirus at the Common Community Commission.

Winter conditions can lead to false positive results when carrying out a coronavirus self-test, warns Professor Herman Goossens, a former head of Belgium's testing taskforce. "Always carry out your self-test at room temperature", he said.

Sales of Covid self-tests at pharmacies in Belgium have skyrocketed over the last couple of months. About 14 times as many tests are being sold every day than were sold in early October. Currently pharmacies are selling about 360,000 per week, and that doesn’t even include the tests available in chains such as Colruyt and Kruidvat (which are cheaper, by the way). While pharmacies sometime sell out on any given day, they always get more the next day as there are plenty in stock and no disruption to the supply chain. Hilde Deneyer of the Flemish Pharmacists Network assures people they don’t need to panic buy in the run-up to the holidays. “There are plenty of tests available, no queues at the pharmacies and no problems with supply,” she said.

The Belgian federal government spent almost €20 million on coronavirus testing facilities that were under-used, Het Laatste Nieuws reported. Last year, the government provided emergency funding to eight universities to set up "super labs", each capable of processing up to 7,000 tests per day. The labs were each paid a fixed fee of €8.64 million per year - a figure that was not based on the number of tests actually carried out, which turned out to be substantially lower than the target.

Belgium’s health ministers announced a change in the test strategy. Until further notice, people who are vaccinated and have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive must request a Covid test on day one following the contact but no longer on day seven. The person can then leave quarantine when a negative result is received. Previously, it was required to get a test on day seven as well, even if the day one test was negative, requiring people to stay in quarantine until a second negative test was received. This was because day one tests often result in false negatives. The new strategy is meant to ease the pressure on test centres and give priority to people who actually have symptoms. Virologists do not agree with the change, saying it will only increase the infection rate. Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke confirmed that the change to the test strategy was temporary.

A new self-assessment questionnaire on the Belgian health ministry website allows you to book a free coronavirus test without first needing a CTPC code from your GP. At-risk patients, such as over-65s and pregnant women, should still see their doctor first. Free tests are available every 11 days. The new tool was launched following complaints from GPs that they are overwhelmed with processing admin for coronavirus tests. Login to your account at masante.belgique.be.

Out-of-hours pharmacies in Brussels are being troubled by non-vaccinated people asking for coronavirus self-testing kits (antigen tests), since the Covid Safe Ticket came into force on 15 October. RTBF reports that some duty pharmacists are being asked by customers for a coronavirus test in the middle of the night - perhaps to gain access to a nightclub or other late-night venue. "The opening of pharmacies at night is a service to help people with severe illnesses, people who urgently need medicine or who are leaving the hospital. We are not a night shop", one pharmacy noted.

Brussels Airport will experiment with a new ultra-fast PCR coronavirus test, offering a result within just 15 minutes, compared to the conventional three-hour wait. It will be available daily between 9.00 and 17.00 at the airport testing centre for a trial period only, ahead of a full rollout in the second quarter of next year. The airport test centre is currently carrying out an average of 1,500 tests per day. Since opening in September 2020, more than half a million passengers have been tested at Brussels Airport.

Leisure

Spot checks on 633 gyms, sports halls and fitness centres around Belgium found more than half of them were not complying with the rules on CO² alarms. Some had none fitted, others had a CO² alarm but it was above the 900ppm reading considered to be safe. Others received a warning for placing the alarm too close to a door or window, which can lead to inaccurate reading.

Walibi amusement park reopened its doors after several months of interruption following this summer's floods. Wearing a mask is compulsory - until the Covid Safe Ticket is fully implemented in Wallonia later this month.

Two chalets at Brussels' Christmas market, Winter Wonders, have been ordered to temporarily close after they were found to not be checking visitors had their Covid Safe Ticket wristband.

The City of Brussels has approved a €3 million loan to Brussels Expo to carry on its day-to-day operations. "In the past 18 months, Brussels Expo has lost €92 million in turnover due to the corona crisis," said Brussels mayor Philippe Close.

The government has cleared up the confusion as to whether there is a restriction on the number of people allowed to stay in holiday villas. There is no restriction. The confusion in the sector stemmed from the royal decree, which stated that private gatherings should be limited to 15 people. This is not the case in larger accommodations that sleep more than 15. If more than 15 people are staying in one accommodation, however, they should not invite any additional guests to visit.

Smaller Christmas markets can go ahead without the Covid Safe Ticket provided no more than 100 people are present at any given time. This 100-person limit also applies to other outdoor cultural performances.

Winter Wonders, Brussels’ annual Christmas market and related activities, opened on Friday with a healthy number of visitors. While the skyrocketing infection and hospital figures did not hold people back, they had to follow strict regulations, such as wearing facemasks (10 and older), limiting groups to six people, following one-way routes and showing a wristband to buy food and drink. Many visitors were not aware of the regulations governing the market, which kept police officers and standholders busy explaining the rules. Wristbands are required for those 16 and older to order food and drink at a chalet or to visit an attraction, such as the skating rink. Wristbands can be gotten at specific locations around the market by showing a Covid Safe Ticket. A new wristband must be acquired every day. Those without a CST can pay €15 for a test on site.

The Ancienne Belgique has suspended about 15 concerts over the coming three weeks due to the latest rules on indoor events set by the consultative committee, which requires spectators to be seated at all times. Meanwhile, concerts at the smaller AB Club hall will be moved to the main concert hall to make room for more seats.

After being disrupted last year because of the coronavirus shutdown, Brussels' Winter Wonders is expected to go ahead from 26 November to 2 January. "The City of Brussels and the organisers are in constant contact with the competent authorities and will comply with any decisions taken regarding the health situation," the organisers said on their Facebook page.

After 18 months of postponements and cancellations, the wedding sector is expecting 2022 to be a busy one. Some organisers are already reporting a good level of bookings for 2023, as availability next year is limited.

Work

Only 3.6% of employers in Belgium have taken advantage of the ‘corona bonus’ for their employees. The scheme was rolled out earlier this year to allow employers who were not adversely affected by the pandemic to offer their employees €500 in consumption checks, which can be used in certain shops and restaurants. The tax rate for employers was half that applied to normal salaries. Employers can still order the checks until 31 December.

Unemployment among under-25s in Brussels has fallen back to pre-pandemic levels, down 11% in a year at 9,311, according to the latest figures from Actiris.

The Belgian national social security office, ONSS, has launched an online tool allowing employers to fill out their mandatory remote-working declarations. Businesses must declare every month how many employees cannot work from home because their job does not make it is possible, and how many can. The latter must only be present in the office for one day per week, maximum. Small firms employing fewer than five people are exempt from the monthly declaration, as are healthcare workers and police.

The Audi factory in Forest is suspending production after a cluster of coronavirus infections emerged among staff.

Employees who suspect they have coronavirus symptoms will automatically be signed off work for a day to enable them to get tested. Anyone who fills in the online self-assessment tool at www.masante.belgique.be and who meets the criteria for testing will receive a certificate of absence. The aim is to lighten the workload for GPs, who spend much time processing coronavirus paperwork. Since 3 November, anyone with symptoms can generate a free activation code for a coronavirus test by filling in the self-assessment questionnaire. One doctor told RTBF: "I have been doing this job for 30 years and I've never known anything like this. A good number of patients who make an appointment are not sick, they just came into contact with a positive person and they come to ask for a code for a test. Other patients who need care have to wait several days for an appointment."

Belgium has made working from home compulsory again - at least four days per week - and required masks to be worn in all venues and events covered by the Covid Safe Ticket. The coronavirus consultative committee has also confirmed that an extra dose of the vaccine will be offered to all fully vaccinated residents in due course, and has reduced the minimum age for mask-wearing from 12 to 10. Read all the details here...

Belgium's federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke has issued an "urgent" plea to workers and businesses: we should go back to working from home wherever possible. With more than 7,000 newly confirmed infections per day, Vandenbroucke said it was everyone's responsibility to limit their close contacts with immediate effect. "We must take urgent action," the minister said. "We underestimated the contagiousness of the virus and the delta variant. The vaccine is a key instrument, but it is not enough. If companies want to continue operating, they must switch to remote work." Belgium is now at alert level 4, with more than 100 contaminations per 100,000 inhabitants in the past 14 days.

A group of MEPs and other European Parliament staff have lodged a legal appeal against the requirement to present a European digital Covid certificate in order to access the parliament's buildings in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg.

Some 43 people are to go on trial accused of fraudulently claiming more than €2 million in coronavirus financial support from the Belgian state. The criminal organisation is alleged to have set up bogus companies and stolen people's identities to pretend that they were unemployed and apply for benefits on their behalf, obtaining up to €1,500 per person per month. The trial will be held in the Justitia courthouse on the former Nato site in Evere.

The CPAS social care organisations in each of Belgium's three regions have issued a joint statement calling for various coronavirus aid measures to be extended until the end of 2022. During the summer of 2020, each CPAS in Belgium was granted a series of subsidies to help people affected by the Covid crisis. The three federations are asking the federal government for these to be extended, as the real impact of the coronavirus crisis is "only starting to be felt".

The federal government is looking to recoup €420 million of coronavirus financial support that was paid out in error or fraudulently. Some 50 inspectors will be hired to carry out checks on potential misuse of the coronavirus support measures - five for the self-employed and 45 for employees. The target is to have €110 million paid back next year, €140 million in 2023 and €170 million in 2024.

The European Commission has validated the Brussels region's €45 million coronavirus stimulus package for businesses. The Brussels government voted in August to provide extra support to cafe and restaurant owners, nightclubs, tourism, sport and the events and culture sectors.

Written by The Bulletin

Comments

Mounir

I am confused, The infection rate has been dropping and is now at 0.96. In the summer it was at 0.86.
So how can we be in the Red?

Dec 7, 2021 16:39