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Coronavirus in Belgium: The latest developments

10:41 24/11/2020
Last update: Tuesday 24 November. Recent updates are in bold

What's the latest?

Friday's meeting of the coronavirus consultative committee will give us perspective up to the new year, including confirmation of what is allowed during the Christmas festivities. It's been confirmed that the meeting will be the last of 2020, "except for possible emergencies".

Belgium has approved a fourth coronavirus vaccine purchase. It will buy 2.9 million doses from German manufacturer CureVac as soon as it has received marketing approval from the European Medicines Agency. This brings the number of coronavirus vaccines ordered by Belgium to more than 20 million - 7.74 million from AstraZeneca, 5.16 million from Johnson & Johnson and five million from Pfizer. CureVac's vaccine is a bit behind the others - it will enter phase 3 clinical trials in the coming weeks and could become available in the second quarter of 2021.

Belgium's federal minister for the self-employed, David Clarinval, says the reopening of shops, hotels and restaurants should be "seriously considered" when the coronavirus consultative committee meets this Friday. "If an outright reopening cannot be considered in the short term, I will propose relaxations to the current measurements," he said. One possible relaxation would be allowing people to shop by appointment.

Foreign minister Sophie Wilmès has returned to work after recovering from coronavirus. "The last few weeks have been trying," she said on Twitter. "I am leaving this ordeal behind and focusing on the challenges that lie ahead." Wilmès was treated in intensive care at Delta hospital in late October.

Brussels' Common Community Commission has unveiled a new campaign targeting young people in the city, reminding them of the importance of following the coronavirus rules. Using posters and Facebook videos, the campaign tells under-25s that they are part of a community of "Covid breakers" and that they have the power to change the current situation by wearing a mask, keeping their distance and limiting their social contacts.

With most of its staff working from home, the European Commission has suspended its catering service until at least September 2021. L'Echo newspaper reports that 400 jobs are threatened at the Commission's various canteens. A further 1,000 are at risk if the European Parliament chooses to follow suit.

Walloon public transport operator TEC has hired 100 private coaches to follow its own buses on the busiest lines, picking up extra passengers when the bus is too busy. The measure is in place until the end of the year, and after an evaluation it could be extended to June.

With France set to reopen its non-essential stores sometime in early December, questions are being asked about whether Belgium will follow. Health minister Franck Vandenbroucke says the number of infections is still too high to allow that to happen. Interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem adds: "Given the drop in numbers, a reopening is possible for mid-December with appropriate measures. Of course, it is the politicians who decide."

The coronavirus consultative committee will meet again this Friday, 27 November. It could set a framework for a possible reopening of shops, and possibly discuss the rules on social contacts over Christmas. "I would like to give some perspective, but false hopes are worse," said prime minister Alexander De Croo. "We will look on Friday."

Another weekend, another lockdown party. This time 70 people were caught partying together at a gîte in Offagne, Luxembourg province. Some of the partygoers fled the scene, while police fined 43 of those present. "It's regrettable that this kind of party is still being organised in the current context," a police spokesman said. The organiser, from the Brussels suburb of Dilbeek, faces a €750 fine.

The Red Cross is renewing its appeal for urgent blood donations. Stocks are critically low and fewer people are giving blood during this second wave. "The new measures have affected the number of blood collections that we can organise, in particular in high schools, universities and companies," the Red Cross said. "We need to increase our stock from almost 2,000 to 3,000 bags within 21 days." See www.donneurdesang.be

Second-hand stores have pleaded to be allowed to reopen completely as soon as possible, arguing that they should not be considered as non-essential. Jean-Marc Caudron, director of the Social and Circular Economy Stores Resources Federation, said: "Many of our customers do not have access to e-commerce and/or cannot obtain warm clothes for the winter." Stocks of toys and second-hand clothes are growing. The second-hand sector employs an estimated 8,000 people in Belgium and collects 165,000 tonnes of goods each year.

Belgium's coronavirus restrictions over the Christmas holidays are not yet confirmed - but already a sizeable chunk of the population say they plan to flout the rules. The University of Antwerp poll found a third of respondents considered it "unlikely" that they will respect any limits on close contacts over the festive period. 86% of the 26,000 people polled said they would spend Saint-Nicholas with just their close family, compared to 75% on New Year's Eve and 68% at Christmas itself.

Belgium's former interfederal spokesman in the fight against coronavirus, microbiologist Emmanuel André, said there was a lack of leadership within the federal government when the first wave broke out. Giving evidence at a special committee examining the management of Covid-19 in Belgium, André singled out former health minister Maggie De Block. "We did not see real leadership, which is a shame," he said. "One would have thought that the federal health minister would fill this role. But the epidemic was not her thing. We therefore saw many experts speak out when there should have been one leader." André said regional governments had worked well together - sending test samples and Covid patients to other parts of the country as the need arose - but added: "It is important to have a system that is as large and heterogeneous as possible. If we limit it to the regions, we are heading towards new problems."

Just a reminder that Belgium's coronavirus testing and quarantine rules change on 23 November. Asymptomatic people who have been in close contact with an infected person can finally get tested again. The test should be done seven days after the date of contact, and you should stay at home until you get a negative result.

A partygoer in Ixelles is in a critical condition in hospital after falling from a fifth-floor balcony during a police check. Officers were called out to reports of noise at the property on Avenue de l'Université in the early hours of Saturday morning. The occupants of the apartment refused to open the door. The fall happened while police waited outside for reinforcements to arrive. An investigation is under way.

After Liège and Charleroi, the Belgian military has opened a mobile Covid-19 unit at the Cliniques de l'Europe Saint Michel site in Etterbeek. All hospitals in the region can transfer patients to this care unit if necessary, which has 20 beds. Its main role will be to care for patients who are on the road to recovery, to free up capacity in hospitals themselves. "Our capacity for doctors and nurses has been fully deployed,” a military spokesman said this week. "We try to support residential care homes as much as possible with our well-trained paramedics, but even there we are at the limit. Our resources are not inexhaustible."

About 150 people marched through the streets of Liège late on Tuesday evening in defiance of the 22.00 curfew. The demonstrators protested against the coronavirus restrictions, which they say "hinder freedom". One protester said the measures were introduced "in a very undemocratic way, with very little support from the population. We are not against the measures but we want the population to be involved in decision-making regarding health measures."

The latest coronavirus study by the University of Antwerp shows Belgians are feeling down - more so than during the first wave - with students and unemployed workers in the hospitality industry among those feeling the most affected. UAntwerp researcher Philippe Beutels said: "Young people between the ages of 16 and 25 continue to struggle."

Latest trends - Tuesday 24 November

Over the past seven days

  • Average daily infections: 3,297 (-33%/week)
  • Total infections: 559,902
  • Test positivity rate: 14.2% (-5.8%)
  • Infection rate: 0.77
  • Average daily deaths: 165.1 (-15.7%)
  • Total deaths: 15,755
  • Average daily hospital admissions: 294.3 (-33%)
  • Currently in hospital: 5,076 (+1%)
  • In intensive care: 1,168 (-2%)

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