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Coronavirus in Belgium: The latest developments

05:00
Last update: Saturday 4 December. Recent updates are in bold

What's the latest?

All nursery and primary schools in Belgium will close for the Christmas holidays a week earlier than planned, on Friday 17 December, and secondary school pupils will switch to a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning next week, Belgium's coronavirus consultative committee has announced. From Monday, indoor events - including concerts, theatre performances and cinema screenings - cannot have more than 200 attendees. Read all the details here...

Another week, another coronavirus consultative committee meeting. It's been called for Friday at 9.00, amid growing calls for tougher restrictions. Flemish minister-president Jan Jambon asked for a new meeting, as the situation in Flanders worsens, particularly in schools, with 115 schools totally closed in Flanders and the Dutch-speaking education system in Brussels. Schoolchildren, who are largely unvaccinated, are "the engine of the pandemic" at the moment, confirms biostatistician Geert Molenberghs. "They don't get sick themselves, but it's a problem for society. We have to try to stop this." The coronavirus incidence rate is at its highest among children under nine. They are among the least likely to be tested when symptoms arrive - but among those who do take a test, 25% of the results come back positive.

Health minister Frank Vandenbroucke is reportedly also in favour of stricter rules. Among the measures that will be considered: a temporary ban on all indoor recreational activities until 15 December. The return of indoor "bubble" rules limiting social contacts at home could also come up. The GEMS expert advisory group was asked on Wednesday to draw up an urgent report ahead of Friday morning's meeting.

The SNCB has had to cancel about 100 trains per day (out of 3,800), due to staff either testing positive for coronavirus or having to quarantine. The rail operator said it wanted to "limit the inconvenience as much as possible by temporarily adapting its offer and thus prevent trains from having to be canceled unexpectedly every day". The SNCB said that rush-hour trains would have as many carriages as platform space allows, to try to avoid overcrowding.

The QVAX platform, used in Flanders and Wallonia to book a vaccination appointment, is back up and running after it crashed on Thursday morning under the weight of visitors trying to join the reserve list for their third dose.

A strike by drivers at private coach hire firm Keolis has had a knock-on effect on Brussels' vaccination efforts. Keolis provides the Vacci-Bus that tours the region offering walk-in vaccinations without an appointment. Thursday's mobile vaccination sessions had to be cancelled.

A court in Namur has ruled that Wallonia’s policy requiring a Covid Safe Ticket for access to certain services is unlawful. The use of the CST was challenged in court by the group Notre Bon Droit, which bills itself as an ‘alliance of health-care workers, scientists, legal experts and citizens’. The court found that the CST might be in breach of EU law and of the proportionality principle, which dictates that restrictions much be in proportion to potential risks. The court also said that the CST could be seen as discriminatory and is in violation of privacy laws. Wallonia has seven days to rectify the situation. If it does not, it must pay a fine of €5,000 a day. The government is appealing the decision, during which the CST policy stays as it is. Bizarrely, due to holidays in November, the notice that the hearing was taking place was not received by Walloon authorities until it was too late, resulting in the region not being represented at the hearing. Notre Bon Droit has a similar case before the courts in Brussels; a decision is expected on 8 December.

Belgium has passed the 27,000 mark for deaths due to the coronavirus. Currently, 316 people are admitted to hospital a day with complications due to the virus. There are 780 people in intensive care, well above the 500 urgency limit that requires special measures be taken. Hospitals have been instructed this week to postpone all non-critical surgeries and procedures by two weeks. An update of corona-related figures can be found below.

The federal police have identified seven of the 19 suspects sought for rioting during the protest against Belgium’s corona policies that took place on 21 November. The police placed photos and descriptions of the suspects online yesterday – starting with 16 and eventually reaching 19 suspects – and asked for help in identifying them. The seven identified have been sent a notice to appear in court. The suspects are being charged with destruction of public property, looting of private property or assault.

The government has cleared up the confusion as to whether there is a restriction on the number of people allowed to stay in holiday villas. There is no restriction. The confusion in the sector stemmed from the royal decree, which stated that private gatherings should be limited to 15 people. This is not the case in larger accommodations that sleep more than 15. If more than 15 people are staying in one accommodation, however, they should not invite any additional guests to visit.

Some 39,000 Brussels residents have already made an appointment to get their booster jab. The Bruvax website began accepting registrations yesterday (see news item below). The third dose of the corona vaccine is already being administered to nursing home residents and care workers, and Brussels has now opened up registrations to all residents. Vaccination co-ordinator Inge Neven says that there are enough vaccines to provide 320,000 residents with the jab by the middle of January.

A total of 820 people were caught with a fake or expired PCR test at Brussels Airport, “over the last few months,” according to the Halle-Vilvoorde public prosecutor. Falsified tests are considered forgery and thus a criminal offense. Police offer the would-be passengers two options: Pay a fine of €750 or appear in court. Some 80% choose the fine. Those who appear in court risk prison time and much higher fines. A court in Brussels has already handed out sentences of six months in prison and fines of up to €1,200. In Halle-Vilvoorde, the public prosecutor asked that 16 people who appeared in court this morning be given six months and fines of €1,600. “This is about antisocial behaviour by people who pretend that corona is someone else’s problem,” the prosecutor said. “We have a zero tolerance for this.” The court will hand out sentences next month.

The federal police have released images of 16 people who are wanted in connection with riots that took place during the protest on 21 November in Brussels. Some 35,000 people took to the streets to protest against the government’s corona policies and required vaccination of care workers. Rioters smashed windows, damaged public infrastructure, set fires, looted a supermarket and destroyed police vehicles. Three police officers were injured and signed off work, one for four weeks. People are asked to contact the police if they recognise any of the people in the photos.

Everyone in Brussels aged 18 and older can register now for the ‘booster’ corona jab. This third dose of the vaccine will eventually be offered to everyone in Belgium, but while the other regions will be working according to invitations, Brussels is accepting registrations immediately. Residents can register at Bruvax, but the system will take into consideration the date of the second jab. There must be period of two months between the second jab and booster for anyone who received Johnson & Johnson, four months for anyone who received AstraZeneca and six months for those who got Pfizer or Moderna. Some 1.3 million people in Belgium have already gotten the booster jab, mostly nursing home residents and those with autoimmune disorders.

Several of the new measures announced on Friday to slow the spread of Covid-19 come into force today. They include indoor sport taking place without spectators, sitting only at indoor events such as concerts and stricter separation of classes at school. Several measures also came into force last Saturday, including the closure of nightclubs. A run-down of the new measures can be found here.

Belgium’s health ministers announced a change in the test strategy at the weekend. Until further notice, people who are vaccinated and have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive must request a Covid test on day one following the contact but no longer on day seven. The person can then leave quarantine when a negative result is received. Previously, it was required to get a test on day seven as well, even if the day one test was negative, requiring people to stay in quarantine until a second negative test was received. This was because day one tests often result in false negatives. The new strategy is meant to ease the pressure on test centres and give priority to people who actually have symptoms. Virologists do not agree with the change, saying it will only increase the infection rate. Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke confirmed that the change to the test strategy was temporary.

Positive tests for HIV infection fell by one-fifth in 2020, according to health research institute Sciensano. The main reason is that fewer tests were carried out because of lockdowns and avoidance of non-emergency medical interventions. But even acute infections later in the year were significantly down. This was the result of lockdowns, social distancing and other measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, says the institute.

Winter Wonders, Brussels’ annual Christmas market and related activities, opened on Friday with a healthy number of visitors. While the skyrocketing infection and hospital figures did not hold people back, they had to follow strict regulations, such as wearing facemasks (10 and older), limiting groups to six people, following one-way routes and showing a wristband to buy food and drink. Many visitors were not aware of the regulations governing the market, which kept police officers and standholders busy explaining the rules. Wristbands are required for those 16 and older to order food and drink at a chalet or to visit an attraction, such as the skating rink. Wristbands can be gotten at specific locations around the market by showing a Covid Safe Ticket. A new wristband must be acquired every day. Those without a CST can pay €15 for a test on site.

Belgium's health ministers have agreed on a timetable for the rollout of the third dose of the coronavirus vaccine for the general public. There will be no priority groups, such as teachers for example. Instead, the order in which invitations will be sent out is based on the date you received your last dose, and which vaccine you received. Those who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine more than two months ago should already have already received their invitation for a booster jab. Letters will be sent out four months after receiving the Astra-Zeneca vaccine and six months after the last dose of the Pfizer or Moderna jab. The goal is to have offered everyone an extra dose of the vaccine by the end of March. Once everyone has been offered an extra dose of the coronavirus vaccine, the rules for obtaining a Covid Safe Ticket will be adapted accordingly, said federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke.

The ban on school trips with overnight stays will run until at least the February half-term holidays, according to a circular sent to schools by Francophone education minister Caroline Désir.

Smaller Christmas markets can go ahead without the Covid Safe Ticket provided no more than 100 people are present at any given time. This 100-person limit also applies to other outdoor cultural performances.

Belgium has become the first country in Europe to detect a case of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus, first found in South Africa. The affected patient was unvaccinated and had travelled to Belgium from Egypt, via Turkey, said health minister Frank Vandenbroucke. Several European countries, including Belgium, have decided to suspend flights from several south African countries where this latest variant has been reported. France has reinforced its border controls with Belgium.

The Ancienne Belgique has suspended about 15 concerts over the coming three weeks due to the latest rules on indoor events set by the consultative committee, which requires spectators to be seated at all times. Meanwhile, concerts at the smaller AB Club hall will be moved to the main concert hall to make room for more seats.

Belgium has announced new restrictions on nightlife, sports, cafes and restaurants in an attempt to slow down the fourth wave of coronavirus. Nightclubs, which only reopened in October after 18 months shut, have been ordered to close again from tomorrow (Saturday) until 15 December. Read all the details here...

The coronavirus contact-tracing service is "overwhelmed" with a bottleneck of cases that need processing. "We can no longer contact everyone within 24 hours of a confirmed case," said interfederal contact tracing coordinator Karine Moykens. "It's especially tense in Wallonia and Flanders. In Brussels, we are still managing to meet deadlines. We're looking for solutions."

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

Latest trends - Saturday 4 December

Over the past seven days

  • Average daily infections: 17,823 (+4%)
  • Total infections: 1,827,467
  • Test positivity rate: 16.3% (+0.3%)
  • Infection rate: 1.00 (-9%)
  • Fully vaccinated: 8,704,891
  • Average daily deaths: 47.1 (+27%)
  • Total deaths: 27,167
  • Average daily hospital admissions: 313.4 (+2%)
  • In hospital: 3,604 (+3%)
  • In intensive care: 803 (+18%)

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