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Coronavirus in Belgium: The latest developments
What's the latest?
The omicron variant was first detected in Belgium on 24 November. Two months later, it now accounts for 98% of all new recorded infections.
After a long day of discussions on Wednesday, Belgium's health and education ministers have agreed to lift the requirement for school pupils to quarantine once four positive cases of coronavirus are detected within the same class. From now on, only pupils who have tested positive themselves are required to stay at home for seven days. The measure also applies to creches. Primary school pupils living under the same roof as someone who tests positive for coronavirus will also be allowed to attend class. This is a very important shift in the strategy to contain the virus. Classes that are currently closed will remain so until the quarantine period ends - the new measures will not retroactively apply to them. "The main problem will remain the absence of teachers," said one of the ministers present at the discussions. One in five teachers is currently off sick.
The Flemish parliament has followed Brussels and Wallonia in extending the use of the Covid Safe Ticket, which was due to expire at the end of this month. The decree does not give a precise end date - although the extension has been described as "temporary".
After the SNCB, it's the turn of De Lijn and the Stib to reduce their services because of staff absence due to coronavirus (or quarantine). Currently 13% of De Lijn drivers are off sick. Bus services in Leuven and trams in Antwerp are the worst-affected. Frequencies on the Brussels metro will be increased from next Monday, with a train every three minutes on the busiest stretches of line and six minutes elsewhere, instead of 2.5 and five respectively. Stib said overcrowding should still be avoidable, as the network is currently only running with 60% of regular passenger numbers.
Belgium's health and education ministers are meeting on Wednesday to discuss possible changes to coronavirus rules in schools, and specifically the rules on class closures and quarantine. One option would be to remove the requirement for children who have had a high-risk contact at home to stay away from school, as is currently the case.
The number of positive coronavirus test results among children under 10 has trebled in a week, from 14,000 to 42,000. The test positivity rate among minors is close to 60%. The most-affected age group at present is teenagers - with 6,793 positive cases per 100,000 in the past week.
From Wednesday, the SNCB will once again reduce the number of train services it runs, by 6.5%, due to staff absences. The rail company said it would cancel several peak-hour services in advance to avoid having to make unexpected cancellations from one day to the next. A quarter of intercity trains between Antwerp and Brussels will not run. Some rush-hour S trains around Brussels are also affected.
Belgium's "coronavirus barometer" has been unveiled and will come into force on Friday, 28 January. The tool is designed to offer a clear framework and more predictability for sectors including culture, public events and cafes. There are three colour codes, based on the epidemiological situation: yellow (situation under control), orange (increasing pressure on health system) and red (high risk of overloading the healthcare system). From Friday, code red will apply. Events can go ahead, with the Covid Safe Ticket compulsory from 50 participants indoors and 100 outdoors. Cafes and restaurants can stay open until midnight, with the limit of six people per table still applying. Nightclubs remain closed. Organised group activities such as youth camps can go ahead, with a maximum of 80 people indoors and 200 outdoors. Amusement parks, indoor playgrounds, zoos, casinos and escape rooms can reopen. The rules on working from home at least four days a week still apply. Code red will remain in place for at least three weeks, when the consultative committee is next due to meet.
Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said starting the barometer on code red was justified: "We are still seeing a very large number of hospitalisations per day. We must hope that the situation will improve in the coming weeks." He said the code-red rules were not too strict: "We have decided to give a lot of flexibility given the health context we are in. I know that for cafes and restaurants, one extra hour does more does not change things very much, but we have nevertheless decided on significant relaxations for the sports sector, culture and events. If we want to reopen life in a sustainable way, we must proceed step by step, even if I know that it is frustrating."
From 1 March, anyone who has not had their booster dose will find that their Covid Safe Ticket ceases to be valid 150 days after their second dose was administered. Previously the limit was 180 days. This means that anyone who had their second dose before 1 October will need to have their booster before the end of February to continue to be allowed access to restaurants and cultural events from 1 March.
Of the 367 people currently in intensive care with coronavirus, half are not vaccinated, said interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem. "This is in line with the most optimistic projections and confirms that omicron is less severe in the current context, where the majority of people are vaccinated and have natural immunity." However, the peak of the fifth wave is not over yet. It is expected around late January or early February. A third of all new infections are currently among under-20s, a figure that has doubled in just a week. Half of new infections are in Flanders, a quarter in Wallonia, 11% in Brussels and the rest cannot easily be assigned to a given region.
The federal parliament's public health committee has drawn up a list of 32 experts that it will invite to give their opinion on the issue of compulsory vaccination. They include constitutionalist Hendrik Vuye, the president of doctors' union Absym and biostatistician Geert Molenberghs.
Strike action has been announced for 10 February in the French-speaking school system. Teachers and school directors are frustrated by what they call a lack of financial support from the Wallonia-Brussels Federation and the ongoing administrative workload in managing the coronavirus crisis and class closures.
From next Thursday (27 January), people who receive a positive result from a self-testing kit can obtain a free code to book a PCR test, without having to first go via their GP. The self-assessment questionnaire on the official MaSanté website will be updated accordingly.
Read our sector-by-sector guide to the latest coronavirus rules and restrictions in Belgium here - updated regularly.
Latest trends - Friday 28 January
Over the past seven days
- Average daily infections: 52,043 (+63%)
- Total infections: 3,007,724
- Test positivity rate: 46.1% (+9.3%)
- Infection rate: 1.19 (-8%)
- Booster doses administered: 6,429,231
- Average daily deaths: 24.4 (+13%)
- Total deaths: 28,938
- Average daily hospital admissions: 344.0 (+34%)
- In hospital: 3,694 (+35%)
- In intensive care: 357 (-3%)