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Coronavirus in Belgium: The latest developments

21:01 03/03/2021
Last update: Thursday 4 March. Recent updates are in bold

What's the latest?

An interministerial health committee has approved giving the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to over-55s in Belgium. Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said: "The opinion of the experts was perfectly clear. AstraZeneca is an excellent vaccine, also for older people. We will therefore start to issue the invitations for people who are over 65 years of age."

After a very quiet start to the campaign, the vaccination centre at Brussels Expo was overwhelmed on Wednesday, with some people reporting queues of up to three hours. Why the sudden change? "As there were initially not enough people who responded to the vaccination invite, the Brussels authorities sent an email to police, social workers and people who work with the disabled, inviting them to come and be vaccinated without an appointment," said Brussels Expo operations director Emin Luka. "The problem is that these people must be registered in the computer system with a whole series of data. This operation takes several minutes and caused a huge queue."

Between 2,000 and 3,000 young people gathered again on Wednesday afternoon in Liège's riverside Parc de la Boverie. About 20 police cars were present, with officers turning some people away in an attempt to stop overcrowding.

Prime minister Alexander De Croo is keen to see non-essential travel allowed again from 1 April. Belgium will reply this week to the European Commission, which has expressed concerns about the travel ban. De Croo said the measure was proportionate and strictly temporary.

Belgium is against the idea of introducing a "vaccination passport" that would allow Europeans to travel freely. Foreign minister Sophie Wilmès said it was not acceptable to make vaccination "a condition of being allowed to move around" - and the current testing and quarantine rules were enough to limit the spread of the virus.

About 500 students gathered at ULB's Solbosch campus on Monday afternoon to demonstrate for a gradual reopening of face-to-face tuition.

The false start in Belgium's coronavirus vaccination campaign will be the subject of a discussion between federal and regional ministers on Wednesday. "There are hiccups that absolutely must be resolved and which are not acceptable," said health minister Frank Vandenbroucke. "There are delays in the process which are not acceptable."

Vandenbroucke has asked the Superior Health Council to give advice before Wednesday on whether the AstraZeneca vaccine should be given to over-55s - and whether the gap between the two Pfizer doses can be doubled from 21 to 42 days. "If we can administer AstraZeneca to everyone, our vaccination campaign can be simpler," Vandenbroucke said. "And if we can further space the first and second Pfizer doses, this will create a significant accelerator effect."

Belgium's coronavirus consultative committee will meet again this Friday - and federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke has already warned that there is "no margin" to allow a major easing of the current restrictions. "I believe that the measures must be maintained," he said. "They have a very important impact."

Police used a drone to broadcast messages ordering crowds of people to leave the Bois de la Cambre on Sunday evening. Many people had gathered on the lawns - often in groups of more than four, with no masks or safe distancing.

Aside from Brussels Expo and Boulevard Pachéco in the city centre, none of Brussels' other planned coronavirus vaccination centres will open until 15 March at the earliest, due to delivery problems.

Some hospitals in Belgium are starting to turn patients away who wear a cloth facemask. It's the case at Charleroi university hospital, some hospitals in Antwerp province and the Epicura hospital group in Ath, RTBF reports. Anyone entering the buildings is required to wear a disposable surgical mask.

Residents in Brussels' nursing homes will gradually be able to resume certain group activities. Once the vaccination rate among residents reaches 90%, it is proposed that shared meals and activities resume, and that up to two close contacts will be allowed to visit residents in their own room.

Belgium's Superior Health Council is now recommending that pregnant women receive the coronavirus vaccine. "There is no known or recorded risk following the vaccination of pregnant women," said Frédéric Debiève, head of obstetrics at Saint-Luc university hospital.

The Walloon government has decided to shorten the practical driving test from 40 to 35 minutes to squeeze in more tests per day, as examination centres are confronted with a backlog of candidates waiting to take their driving test due to the coronavirus shutdown.

Latest trends - Thursday 4 March

Over the past seven days

  • Average daily infections: 2,386.0 (+8%)
  • Total infections: 777,608
  • Test positivity rate: 6.6% (0%)
  • People vaccinated (first dose): 524,800
  • Average daily deaths: 27.6 (-33.7%)
  • Total deaths: 22,169
  • Average daily hospital admissions: 151.9 (+20%)
  • Currently in hospital: 1,901 (-2%)
  • In intensive care: 434 (+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.

Written by Paul McNally