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Coronavirus in Belgium: The latest developments

06:01
Last update: Wednesday 20 January. Recent updates are in bold

What's the latest?

Belgium almost missed out on 2.5 million Pfizer coronavirus vaccines because of a forgotten signature on an order form. In December, the European Commission negotiated the purchase of an additional 100 million doses - on top of the 200 million ordered a month earlier. However, Knack reports that the Federal Agency for Medicines and Health Products forgot to sign the participation document in time. The problem was brought to the attention of prime minister Alexander De Croo - and when the Commission bought a further batch in January, Belgium was able to negotiate the delivery of its missing 2.5 million doses from the previous batch. Health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said the mishap would not compromise Belgium's vaccination schedule. "We have solved the problem and Belgium is back on the European train. There is no impact on the number of vaccines, nor the delivery schedule."

Private lab firm Eurofins has launched the Coronabus - a mobile unit that can be made available to municipalities in need of a flexible and temporary coronavirus test facility. The bus has a capacity of two and is capable of up to 300 tests per day. Coronabus can be booked by local councils, federal authorities, customs officers or border police. "For example, it might be necessary to test all the sailors on a boat that is arriving in a port," a Eurofins spokesman said. "The bus provides flexibility." The firm is prepared to equip three or four more buses if the demand is there.

A large-scale coronavirus testing operation is under way in schools in Houthulst, West Flanders, after an outbreak of the British variant of the virus in a nursing home. Similar tests are being carried out in Edegem and Kontich, Antwerp province, after an outbreak which has been traced to a local woman who went skiing in Switzerland at Christmas. She had a negative test result on return, collected her daughter from shared custody and quarantined for a week. By the time she received her second, positive, test result, her daughter had returned to her father and headed back to school. The girl and her father were infected - as was a classmate, whose mother taught in another school. Two schools have closed as a result, and 5,000 pupils and family members are in quarantine.

One in five Belgian companies is not doing everything it can to make remote working possible for staff, according to the federal employment ministry. A spokesman said small businesses were the most likely to not have an effective remote working policy in place. Company owners that continue to flout the rules face prosecution.

A nursery school in Maasmechelen, Limburg province, has closed for a week after several confirmed coronavirus cases among young children and teachers. The adjoining primary school, which is separate, remains open.

The mass vaccination of healthcare workers in all Flemish hospitals has been put on hold because Pfizer cannot guarantee a steady supply of doses in the coming weeks. Hospitals will use up the vaccines they already have stored in their freezers - but it could be two weeks before more are delivered. Zorgnet-Icuro president Margot Cloet said: "It's an impossible situation for hospitals. It's incredibly confusing and hard to explain to hospital staff." Sabine Stordeur, co-head of the federal vaccination task force, said: "If a region has to change its schedule, all regions should do the same."

Justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne has confirmed that travellers returning to Belgium from a red zone who fail to take a coronavirus test on the first and seventh days will risk a fine of €250. The minister has written to the college of prosecutors-general this week advising them of the new rules.

Hairdressers cannot work at the moment - but hairdressing students can. Requests can be found on social media from trainees seeking models for a hairdo. Francophone education minister Caroline Désir said students in two professional sectors - hospitality and beauty - are allowed to seek volunteers on whom to practice. They cannot ask for money.

Finance minister Vincent Van Peteghem said Friday's coronavirus committee meeting could be brought forward to earlier in the week. Ministers already discussed draft measures on Monday, and the Risk Assessment Group of experts have submitted their proposals on Tuesday. One proposal is to drop the minimum age requirement for wearing a face mask from 12 to 10 if there is continued growth in the mutant strains of the virus, which are more contagious among children.

People returning from abroad who refuse to take the mandatory coronavirus tests on days one and seven should be fined, justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne has said. "Our systems know who is not using the QR code, which entitles them to two tests," he said. "Prime minister De Croo has asked that the federated entities [Belgium's regions] work on it as quickly as possible."

The food supply chain in Belgium never came under pressure during the first two waves of coronavirus - but that didn't stop consumers stocking up on tinned and frozen foods, with sales up 9% last year. Supermarkets enjoyed record sales in 2020 thanks to the closure of restaurants. In Delhaize, canned goods were up 20% and frozen veg up 15%. Colruyt says sales of these items grew by 10%.

Public health institute Sciensano has begun including the total number of people vaccinated against coronavirus in its daily stats update. The number currently stands at 100,443 partly vaccinated (with one dose).

The province of West Flanders has banned all cultural and sporting activities for under-12s, in a bid to prevent the spread of new more contagious strains of coronavirus.

The chief executive of Belfius bank has apologised for comments about the hotel, restaurant and cafe sector which he made in a press interview. Marc Raisière had said: "Of course there will be bankruptcies, but didn't we have too many cafes and restaurants in Belgium? Were they all profitable? Were they all viable, without resorting to work on the black? I am well aware that I am speaking very bluntly, but economies need a wave of consolidation from time to time." Deputy prime minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne condemned the comments, which come from the boss of a bank that was rescued by the Belgian taxpayer in 2011. "Behind the numbers and percentages there are jobs, families and lives that deserve respect and support," Dermagne said. The bank's boss later apologised: "My intention has never been to stigmatise this sector for which I have a great deal of respect or to hurt anyone."

Eurostar has warned that it could be unable to pay its creditors by late spring if governments do not come to its rescue. The cross-Channel rail operator's chief executive Jacques Damas said "a disaster" was possible in the second half of the second quarter, "but if ever the crisis became more severe, it might even happen a little sooner". Eurostar lost 82% of its revenues last year and is running just one service a day between Brussels, London and Amsterdam, which are reportedly 80% empty.

Faced with a surplus of coronavirus doses, some retirement homes have been giving the vaccine to residents' family members at the end of the day to avoid wastage, Het Nieuwsblad has revealed. Flanders' Agency for Care and Health says the practice is unacceptable. The director of a retirement home in Etterbeek told RTBF: "When we placed our order, we still thought that a vial could vaccinate five people. A few weeks later, we were informed that we could finally use six doses per vial, so we ended up with a surplus. For me it was out of the question to throw them away - they're too precious. I had four doses going spare, so I made the decision. Once the vials were opened, we had just six hours to use them up." Brussels social care organisation Iriscare will write to all retirement homes reminding them of the protocol: spare doses at the end of the day should be collected by the fire department and used to vaccinate their firefighters and volunteers.

A ministerial committee met on Monday to discuss what measures should be taken to limit the spread of foreign variants of coronavirus within Belgium as much as possible. The rules relating to coronavirus tests and quarantine currently do not apply to people who have left Belgium for short trips of no more than 48 hours. One option being discussed is shortening this timeframe to just 16 hours. Cross-border work daytrips would therefore still be possible. Health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said that while an all-out ban on non-essential travel was not desirable, he did not exclude "going further by discouraging and making travel abroad difficult". Belgium's coronavirus consultative committee will announce a decision after it meets on Friday.

Monday brings three significant steps in Belgium's vaccination campaign. The first elderly people to receive the Pfizer jab are getting their second dose today. The first Moderna vaccines are being administered at hospitals in Ixelles, Eupen, La Louvière and Antwerp. And the mass vaccination of Belgium's healthcare personnel also began on Monday.

Some 128 residents at a nursing home in West Flanders have tested positive for the British variant of coronavirus. The outbreak occurred in Houthulst, north of Ypres. Meanwhile, two primary schools, in Kontich and Edegem, Antwerp province, have closed for a week after a positive test result for the UK strain of the virus, with all staff, students and parents told to quarantine.

So far, more than 96,000 coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered in Belgium, according to the latest Sciensano stats. Infectious disease specialist Leïla Belkhir said: "The vaccination campaign is accelerating with the start of vaccination in hospitals next week."

About 300 people gathered on the Place de la Monnaie on Saturday evening for a cabaret-style show in support of Belgium's culture sector, as most venues remain closed. Meanwhile, 50 people protested on the Mont des Arts on Friday afternoon to protest about inadequate financial support for Brussels' cafe and restaurant sector.

Police in Aalst broke up a house party on Friday evening with 28 adults and a few children present - after one of the participants posted photos of the bash on Facebook. The organiser was fined €4,000. The other 27 adults present were each fined €750.

Last year, Brussels residents bought 13.65 million service vouchers to pay for a cleaner or other home help. That's down 18% on the previous year, mainly due to the stay-at-home period in March and April.

Brussels residents will be invited to visit one of 10 vaccination centres when their turn to get the jab comes up. Four centres will open in February, for healthcare personnel - a new one at Heysel and three centres that are currently used for Covid-19 testing: Schaerbeek, Forest and Boulevard Pachéco in the city centre. In March, six others will follow: the Parliamentarium in Ixelles, the Military Hospital in Neder-Over-Heembeek, Molenbeek, Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, Anderlecht and a 10th centre in the south of Brussels at a location yet to be confirmed. Flanders will have 94 vaccination centres, Wallonia 54.

Belgian labs have so far detected about 100 cases of people carrying different variants of coronavirus. "This is of course a sample," said virologist Marc Van Ranst. "It should probably be multiplied by 100." Most of the cases related to the British strain of the virus.

The two waves of coronavirus in 2020 led to 17,966 excess deaths in Belgium, according to an estimate by public health body Sciensano. Covid-19 led to a 16.6% increase in mortality last year. In total, 126,000 people died in Belgium in 2020. In an ordinary year, the figure would have been around 108,000. Excess mortality in recent years, due to heatwaves or flu, has generally caused an increase of no more than 2% in total numbers of deaths.

Latest trends - Wednesday 20 January

Over the past seven days

  • Average daily infections: 1,988.1 (-5%)
  • Total infections: 681,250
  • Test positivity rate: 5.2% (-0.2%)
  • Infection rate: 1.02
  • Average daily deaths: 49.9 (-5.4%)
  • Total deaths: 20,554
  • Average daily hospital admissions: 123.4 (-1%)
  • Currently in hospital: 1,960 (-1%)
  • In intensive care: 360 (-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