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Coronavirus in Belgium: The latest developments

21:20 21/10/2020
Last update: Wednesday 21 October. Recent updates are in bold

What's the latest?

We need to talk about staying at home again. That's according to former interfederal spokesman Emmanuel André, who says a new stay-at-home order is "the only tool we have left". Speaking to RTBF on Wednesday, the virologist said: "We should no longer be asking the question of what to close. We should ask ourselves what we should leave open."

Fellow virologist Marc Van Ranst tweeted on Wednesday: "If a trip is not really necessary, postpone it. If you're planning a big party, postpone it. If possible, stay at home."

Georges-Louis Bouchez, president of the MR party, agrees that we need to take "much stricter measures". He said: "To be able to control the spread of the coronavirus, a maximum of 100 infections per 100,000 inhabitants is needed. We are at 850. If we continue like this, hospitals will be saturated in the coming weeks." Bouchez added: "Schools must be closed as late as possible and I hope that we will not have to do so."

Another pop-up coronavirus testing centre in Brussels opens its doors to the public this Thursday, on the Brussels Expo site at Heysel. Open Monday-Saturday from 9.00 to 17.00, it has capacity for 600 tests per day, eventually increasing to 1,200. Testing is by appointment - and reserved for people showing symptoms as well as vulnerable age groups. Register at brussels.testcovid.be. The new centre brings Brussels' daily coronavirus testing capacity to 5,000. The goal is to reach 9,000 by December. Other centres are at Mérode (Etterbeek), Albert (Forest) and Saint-Jean clinic on Boulevard Pachéco.

The largest Colruyt supermarket in the Brussels region, on Chaussée de Mons in Anderlecht, closed on Wednesday after the detection of a coronavirus cluster among staff. Seven of the supermarket's 40 employees have tested positive. All other staff are quarantined. The store will be thoroughly disinfected and will reopen on Thursday, with a back-up team drafted in from other Colruyt stores.

Christmas markets in Belgium are cancelled - but the City of Brussels has not ruled out organising a 2020 edition of Winter Wonders, albeit in a different form. Brussels Major Events, the fair's organiser, is looking at how to implement a Covid-safe version of the popular festive attraction.

Brussels' Dutch-speaking unversity VUB will switch to "code red" from next Monday. Staff will be asked to work from home, and lectures will be delivered remotely. An exception will apply for seminars and practical work which require the use of specialised equipment. First-year and international students will still be offered some face-to-face contact with teaching staff. University cafeterias will provide takeaways and the library will remain open.

Trade unions representing retail workers have called on supermarkets to make the use of shopping trolleys compulsory again - to help customers keep a safe distance from each other. The unions also want stores to disinfect each trolley after use, since "it is clear that customers no longer systematically do so".

Meanwhile, supermarkets are urging customers to do their shopping alone again. "It is not an obligation, but a strong recommendation," say Colruyt, Delhaize, Carrefour, Lidl and Albert Heijn in a joint statement. Delhaize is also encouraging shoppers to plan ahead and make fewer trips to the supermarket.

Care homes in Brussels have started toughening their rules again on family visits, which are now limited to a maximum of two people per fortnight. On-site restaurants are off-limits for visitors and care homes can no longer organise excursions.

Don't all rush at once, but La Palma in Spain is the last region of Europe where Belgian residents can travel freely. The foreign ministry has updated its travel advice, with Istria in Croatia moving from green to orange. All of France is now red, meaning travel is strongly discouraged. The situation in Italy is also deteriorating. Should you have travel plans for the coming half-term holidays, it's best to check this site now.

UCLouvain infectious disease specialist Jean-Luc Gala, one of the most widely quoted experts in Belgium's French-speaking media on coronavirus, has been publicly criticised by Belgium's federal health minister for his "irresponsible" comments. Saint-Luc university hospital has distanced itself from Gala, describing his remarks as "contrary to our values". Gala has been accused by some of downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic.

Residents in parts of Watermael-Boitsfort have resumed the nightly 20.00 clap for healthcare workers which was a common sight throughout Belgium during the first coronavirus wave.

Belgium's coronavirus consultative committee, bringing together the federal and regional governments, will meet again by videoconference on Friday and discuss possible sector-specific changes to the coronavirus rules.

The Belgian taxi federation Febet is seeking financial support from the government after it imposed a night-time curfew from midnight to 5.00. The federation has supplied drivers with a waiver document allowing them to continue driving during the curfew hours. Febet chairman Khalid Ed-Denguir said that if the federal minister for the self-employed, David Clarnival, did not respond to the request for compensation, taxi drivers would consider a protest action on 16 November. "Our turnover has dropped by 70-80%," he said. "Yet we have been completely overlooked."

Four out of 10 schoolchildren in Belgium feel uncomfortable at school due to the coronavirus risk. The survey of 1,700 families found seven out of 10 secondary school pupils found wearing a mask all day unpleasant. Half of parents answering the survey was in favour of closing secondary schools. Another third preferred a mix of distance and face-to-face learning.

All Delhaize and Colruyt supermarkets will close an hour earlier on Friday evenings, at 20.00, to make it easier to enforce the new ban on selling alcohol at night. Many supermarkets open until 21.00 on Friday evenings. Unions asked for the earlier closure as staff fear they will be faced with aggressive customers trying to buy booze after 20.00. The reduced opening hours do not automatically apply to franchised stores, such as Proxy Delhaize, which are free to choose. Carrefour will decide on Wednesday whether to follow suit.

Namur has reintroduced the requirement to wear a mask in the city centre. Masks will also be compulsory along the banks of the Meuse and Sambre.

Cultural venues cannot sell food and drink for the next month, bringing them in line with cafes and restaurants. The measure also means that cinemas have been banned from selling popcorn or fizzy drinks. "We are stunned, it is a real blow," said Thierry Laermans, secretary general of the Federation of Belgian Cinemas. "We are already in a very problematic situation, we barely manage to make ends meet. The ban on the sale of food poses risks seriously jeopardising the entire sector and leading to bankruptcies. The sale of snacks in cinemas is exactly like a take-out meal."

Belgium's federal health ministry and the Anti-Poison Centre have launched an awareness campaign, after reporting a record number of cases of domestic accidents involving disinfectant gel and other cleaning products. Bad reactions to hydroalcoholic gel increased five-fold since the coronavirus outbreak began, and incidents including bleach have doubled. The high alcohol content of disinfectant gels can lead to serious intoxication, especially in children.

Former Belgian prime minister Sophie Wilmès has tested positive for coronavirus. "A contamination probably occurred within my family circle, given the precautions I take outside my home," she said on Twitter. "The multiplication of cases unfortunately reminds us that no one is immune. Take care of yourself and above all take care of others."

Federal ministers held meetings on Sunday with representatives from the sectors affected by this Monday's partial shutdown. Health minister Frank Vandenbroucke, economy minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne and the minister for the self-employed, David Clarnival, met organisations representing restaurant, cafe and nightclub owners, the culture and events sectors and fairground organisers. The federal government has set aside €500 million in emergency funding for those affected by the latest round of coronavirus restrictions.

The Athénée Royal Jean Absil secondary school in Etterbeek has asked all of its 1,340 pupils to stay at home for the next week. "We no longer have enough teachers and educators to supervise the students," said director Caroline Pisonier. "There are too many sick people or people in quarantine because of Covid. I myself am at home in quarantine." According to one parent, online lessons will be delivered from Monday morning using Microsoft Teams.

Another weekend, another illegal party. After receiving an anonymous phone call, police were called out to a shisha bar in Anderlecht on Friday night, where 200 people were present. Police issued fines to six people for breaching the coronavirus rules, and one for rebellion.

Latest trends - Wednesday 21 October

Over the past seven days

  • Average daily infections: 8,975.4 (+68%/week)
  • Total infections: 240,159
  • Test positivity rate: 15.8% (+4.1%)
  • Average daily deaths: 32.4 (+14.3%)
  • Total deaths: 10,489
  • Average daily hospital admissions: 295.4 (+94%)
  • Currently in hospital: 2,969 (+7%)
  • In intensive care: 486 (+9%)

Is there an official Belgian website to get the latest information?

There are two, in fact - www.sciensano.be and www.info-coronavirus.be - plus a freephone helpline: 0800 14 689. You can be on hold for some time.

Read more on The Bulletin

Written by Paul McNally