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'No reason to panic': Belgium responds to spike in Chinese Covid cases

17:41 04/01/2023

Belgium has increased its state of alert for coronavirus amid a spike in Chinese cases.

The alert increase means that wastewater from planes that arrive at Brussels Airport from China will be collected and analysed, including for new variants of the virus.

Additionally, travellers returning from China with coronavirus symptoms will have to undergo a PCR or antigen test.

The increase in alert stops short of requiring negative coronavirus tests from travellers coming from China, but Belgian health minister Frank Vandenbrouck is calling for a common European policy to do so for all travel to the European Union.

“We believe that it is only useful to ask for a test from China to Europe if the whole of Europe coordinates,” Vandenbroucke said, explaining that a mandatory test for travellers to Belgium from China is not particularly effective given how few direct flights there are between the two countries.

“To be effective, we must then reintroduce the Passenger Locator Form (PLF) to allow follow-up of people coming from China.”

China, which recently ended its ‘zero-Covid’ policy, is facing a surge in infections.

Several European countries such as France, Italy and Spain have already decided to require a negative Covid test from travellers coming from China.

Globally, countries such as the US, Japan, South Korea and Canada also require a negative test, a measure which the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has called "unjustified" considering high vaccination rates in Europe.

“What is happening in China is really dramatic, however, this situation does not represent a great danger for us, thanks to the massive vaccination of Belgians,” said Vandenbroucke.

The minister also called on people to continue these efforts in the fight against the spread of Covid-19 by receiving a booster dose of the vaccine and continuing to rely on measures such as masks and proper ventilation.

EU member states will discuss a common response to travellers from China this week.

Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst (KU Leuven) has cautioned against an overreaction. “It's not the same story as in 2020,” Van Ranst said.

“The variants that are currently circulating in China come from here. In Belgium, we are well resistant to the different versions of the variant because of high vaccination coverage and increased immunity. The extra attention to the Chinese situation is good, but there is absolutely no reason to panic or worry.”

In the meantime, measures taken in March 2020 intended to speed up the payment of unemployment benefits – as people lost their jobs to the pandemic-related shutdowns of various economic sectors – have now ended.

Under those measures, employers no longer had to send unemployment notifications to the National Employment Office (Onem) and workers who were temporarily unemployed for the first time could submit a simplified application for benefits and were not required to have a control card.

This meant that employees who were temporarily unemployed received their benefits more quickly. But as of 1 January, this administrative flexibility is over.

Employers must once again notify Onem of their temporary unemployment forecasts, keep an up-to-date validation book and issue a numbered control card to each worker.

“This is important, because if they don't do these formalities properly, it could lead to difficulties for themselves and also for the workers when they have to apply for temporary unemployment benefits,” said Onem's Michel Ureel.

In 2022, an estimated 170,000 people applied for temporary unemployment benefits due to the pandemic, catastrophic weather events such as the fatal floods of summer, or for economic reasons.

Written by Helen Lyons