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Coronavirus in Belgium: The latest developments

05:07 20/10/2021
Last update: Wednesday 20 October. Recent updates are in bold

What's the latest?

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.

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.

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.

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 manager of a cafe on Rue des Poissonniers in downtown Brussels was stabbed on Friday night 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.

Several hundred people from the anti-vaccine movement gathered on Saturday 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".

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.

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.

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."

When the federal government relaxed its coronavirus measures on 1 October, Brussels and Wallonia decided to opt out and maintain the existing rules. Flanders went ahead, allowing masks to no longer be worn in shops and other public places. Belgium's federal health minister, Frank Vandenbroucke, is now disappointed that Flanders is not taking a stricter approach: "It is a shame that the Flemish government does not allow the use of the Covid Safe Ticket in the outskirts of Brussels," he said. "The situation in Vilvoorde is not so different as in Brussels."

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.

From now, you'll need to provide proof that you are fully vaccinated, or have recently tested negative for coronavirus, or have antibodies from a recent infection (within 180 days), in order to access Brussels' cafes, restaurants, gyms and sports facilities, cultural venues and museums, banqueting facilities, congress centres, or to visit someone in a hospital or retirement home. The Covid Safe Ticket can be printed out via masante.belgique.be or displayed as a QR code on your smartphone using the CovidSafe app. If you cannot access the internet, it can be posted to you by calling 02 214 19 19. Venue owners and event organisers use the CovidScan app to check the QR code is valid. The ticket is not required for staff - for example, waiters in a restaurant or organisers of a cultural event - as workplaces are not within the scheme's remit. After an initial awareness-raising period of two weeks, fines ranging from €50 to €500 for the public and €50 to €2,500 for venues and organisers could be issued. Mayors also have the power to instruct local police to close a venue down for a maximum of three months in the event of repeat non-compliance. Presenting a fraudulent Covid Safe Ticket can also lead to prosecution. The measures are provisionally in place until 15 January. Meanwhile, in Wallonia, it has been confirmed that the Covid Safe Ticket will come into force on 1 November.

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.

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.

Brussels Airport will experiment with a new ultra-fast PCR coronavirus test from Monday, 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.

Several cafe and restaurant owners say they have still yet to receive any official information about the enforcement of the Covid Safe Ticket, which comes into force this Friday. One cafe owner told RTBF: "What do I do if a customer is sat at a table and doesn't have the health pass? Do I throw them out? If they refuse, do I call the police?" Cafes face fines of up to €2,500 for non-compliance, but the Brussels Horeca Federation is in favour of the Covid Safe Ticket. Its managing director Fabian Hermans said: "We've had two catastrophic years. The Covid Safe Ticket is the way to return to more or less normal activity. Scanning a QR code with a smartphone takes three seconds. And it allows cafes to drop the rules of social distancing inside - no more maximum number of people per table, plexiglass, 1.5 metres between tables. Cafes and restaurants will regain their maximum capacity."

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.

Read our sector-by-sector guide to the latest coronavirus rules and restrictions in Belgium here - updated regularly.

Latest trends - Wednesday 20 October

Over the past seven days

  • Average daily infections: 3,151 (+50%)
  • Total infections: 1,292,887
  • Test positivity rate: 6.6% (+1.5%)
  • Infection rate: 1.26 (+28%)
  • Fully vaccinated: 8,507,346
  • Average daily deaths: 11.1 (+13%)
  • Total deaths: 25,797
  • Average daily hospital admissions: 79.1 (+41%)
  • In hospital: 947 (+26%)
  • In intensive care: 230 (+14%)

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.

Written by The Bulletin