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Updated: Our practical guide to how Belgium's coronavirus measures affect you
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Belgian authorities are no longer using anonymous mobile phone location data in the fight against coronavirus. A report by Knack magazine claims all the data collected and analysed by the "Data Against Corona" taskforce was destroyed last December. David Stevens, president of the Belgian Data Protection Authority, said he was "relieved", although the authority has not yet been able to verify the report. "Data Against Corona" was set up in March 2020 by the federal government under then-prime minister Sophie Wilmès. Anonymised location data from Proximus, Base and Orange was used to map the movements of people around the country.
Omicron is not the last variant of coronavirus that we will see in Belgium. "It is not being pessimistic to say that there will be others," said virologist Emmanuel André. "This virus knows how to mutate to continue to evade our immune system and will continue to do so. Omicron circulates widely and that circulation promotes the emergence of new variants."
Marius Gilbert, epidemiologist at ULB, said: "For me, it is too early to say that with omicron there is a disconnect between cases and hospitalisations. To say that we can let it circulate freely is a step too far. It would be very risky to say that at this stage." Philippe Devos, deputy head of intensive care at CHC hospital in Liège, added: "We do not yet have enough data on Omicron and it could still have some unpleasant surprises in store for us. Today, hospitals remain on the alert. All the models point to possible problems for the last fortnight of January or even for the beginning of February."
The fifth wave of coronavirus in Belgium "has indeed started", says virologist Steven Van Gucht, with average daily infection numbers up 82% in a week. According to experts' forecasts, the peak can be reached in mid-January. At this period, we could reach between 30,000 and 125,000 new cases per day, depending on the testing strategy.
Belgium is "still in the ascending phase" of the fifth wave, with record numbers of confirmed cases of coronavirus, says virologist Steven Van Gucht. "Never before has coronavirus circulated so widely in our country," he said. Nonetheless, the situation in hospitals "remains manageable", he added. "We are in the middle of the exponential phase of the fifth wave," adds virologist Yves Van Laethem, who said the increase in infections was most prevalent among 10 to 19-year-olds. But he added: "Omicron is currently more manageable than delta."
Virologist Marc Van Ranst is optimistic about Belgium's coronavirus situation. "We are seeing figures stabilise in other countries. While our curve is going up spectacularly now, I don't expect it to last very long," he said. The situation in hospitals is the figure to watch closely. "The disease seems less serious and we must therefore start to adapt our thinking about it," Van Ranst added. "It's becoming closer to flu, and we'll see it every year." But he added: "The flu is certainly not something we should underestimate, but it is something we know about. It will cause more deaths than we are used to, because some people will have flu and Covid at the same time."
A recent demonstration against the coronavirus restrictions in Brussels attracted somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 participants, according to estimates from police and organisers respectively. The march was mostly peaceful. Police made 30 administrative arrests and a handful of judicial arrests for vandalism and violence. Organisers said the march attracted "people from all walks of life and all faiths, coming together to make it clear that we will not tolerate the Covid Safe Ticket. Vaccinated and unvaccinated people, from the left and right, are getting the message across that there needs to be a policy that chooses to unite rather than divide and polarise - a government that chooses supportive measures instead of repressive measures." Prime minister Alexander De Croo said that while a few thousand people were protesting against the coronavirus measures, there was "a very large silent majority doing the right thing".
The consultative committee once again did not follow the expert advice it received from the GEMS panel, its chair Erika Vlieghe revealed. The experts had called for remote working to become compulsory all week long, not just four days a week, and for capacity on public transport to be halved. "It's regrettable that we are not doing more to reduce infections," Vlieghe said. "We should not be communicating optimistic messages at the moment like: 'It's not so bad.'"
A quarter of new coronavirus infections in Belgium are within the Brussels region, said interfederal spokesman Steven Van Gucht. Young people, in their 20s, are the most-affected age group. Van Gucht said the Brussels population was comparatively "less vaccinated, more mobile at an international level and younger, therefore carrying out more activities with close contacts".
The federal government often reminds us of the importance of good ventilation. But how well does it follow its own advice? Het Nieuwsblad reports that the CO² meter at Thursday's consultative committee press conference reached alarming levels. Initially at 700ppm, the reading climbed to 1,000 and eventually 1,200ppm as more journalists entered the room. The prime minister's press officers looked visibly worried, the newspaper added, and tried asking some photographers to leave the room in mid-conference to get the figure down.
Belgium's Princess Elisabeth polar research station in Antarctica is in quarantine until 12 January after two-thirds of the 25 staff present were infected with coronavirus. A first positive Covid case was detected on 14 December among a group of researchers who had arrived seven days earlier. The infected person was immediately placed in isolation, but two other passengers on the flight also tested postive. Since then, the virus has spread rapidly among the team. The building, being particularly well-insulated, proved to be an environment conducive to the spread of the virus. All staff on the base were fully vaccinated. The Strategic Council of the Polar Secretariat has chosen to keep the infected staff on the site until the quarantine period is over, and then to shorten as much as possible the current research season. Two further research campaigns, planned for the coming weeks, have been postponed. According to a virologist consulted by the Polar Secretariat, it is highly likely that the infections at the base are the omicron variant, which represents 99% of all cases in South Africa, the stopover country before Antarctica.
Two meetings of the consultative committee are planned for January. The first will look at how the epidemiological situation has evolved over the Christmas holidays, including hospital data and the progress of the booster dose campaign. The current restrictions on culture, sport and nightlife will also be reassessed - but relaxed rules are unlikely to come immediately. Instead, sources suggest the committee will attempt to draw up a timeframe, to offer some perspective to these sectors for the coming months - much like Belgium's "summer plan" to ease coronavirus restrictions last year. A second meeting, in mid-January, will try to offer some more long-term visibility, including on the supply of vaccines and the future of testing facilities.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to a boom in book sales in Belgium. Dilibel, one of the largest distributors of books in French-speaking Belgium with almost a 30% market share, said sales were up more than 20% in the past year. Sales of manga have more than doubled. "This is excellent news, even more when we see that it is young readers who buy them," said director Patrick Mollet. "Books are the only cultural medium that has come out of the pandemic well. Bookstores were quickly considered - intelligently by our government - as essential businesses, when all other cultural activities had been closed. Ten years ago, some said that the book was dead. We hope here that this resurgence will last over time." One independent bookstore owner in the centre of Brussels told RTBF: "Sales climbed 40% last year compared to 2019. In 2020, we were already up 25% despite several weeks of closure during the stay-at-home period. It's incredible to be able to say that, when you see the damage it has done to other businesses."
It's confirmed: cinemas, theatres, concert halls and culture centres can reopen, after the consultative committee on Wednesday announced a U-turn on last week's order to shut down indoor cultural events and activities. The rules set at the previous meeting on 3 December now stand: spectators must remain seated, wear a mask and, at events with more than 50 people, present a Covid Safe Ticket. Capacity is limited to 200 people.
This U-turn raises questions about future compliance with Belgium's other coronavirus measures. Bénédicte Linard, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation culture minister, says: "There are still months and months of the coronavirus crisis ahead of us. What is extremely important for the following consultative committees is that there be a consistency and meaning in the measures. Because if the public are not on our side, because there is no sense in the measures, we will have lost the battle against coronavirus." The sports sector, in particular, has been watching this week's developments closely and there are reportedly plans to challenge the ban on spectators at outdoor matches and fixtures.
Deputy prime minister Georges Gilkinet, from the Ecolo party, says lessons need to be learned from this past week's handling of the coronavirus crisis. The decision to shut down a large part of the culture sector, which went far beyond the official advice from the GEMS expert group, caused widespread condemnation from the sector itself and various politicians, and was struck down by the Council of State. Is it time to reassess how the consultative committee makes decisions? It is reported that the consultative committee will draw lessons from this week's debacle and consult further with political, scientific, economic and civil society experts on future decisions. Jean Faniel, director of the Centre for Sociopolitical Research and Information, believes the consultative committee should indeed be opened up to a wider range of voices. "When a secretary of state, who is not part of the Council of Ministers, is affected by a decision, they should be invited and involved in the discussion," he said. "Their involvement would end there. They would have no decision-making voice. It would still be up to the committee's members to reach a consensus." When the pandemic began, Sophie Wilmès relied on the national security council - a federal body - to decide on policy. Since then, the consultative committee has given a bigger say to Belgium's federated entities: its regions and language communities. But, adds Faniel, "the consultative committee has been made up of the same people since October 2020. Members who know each other well, with a history of tensions and negotiations. And maybe there is a silo effect that has set in."
Several theatres around Brussels reported a sudden surge in bookings for New Year's Eve performances after the Council of State struck down the consultative committee's order to close theatres. Cinemas and theatres can currently accommodate a maximum of 200 people, seated and wearing a mask, with the Covid Safe Ticket.
Covid Safe Ticket
An appeals court in Liège has dismissed a complaint from a campaign group against the Covid Safe Ticket, judging that the measure was "necessary and proportionate" in the fight against coronavirus. The court overturned an earlier ruling by a court in Namur, which had sided with the non-profit association which had argued that the CST contravened European law and violated the principle of equality. The Namur court had ordered the Walloon region in late November to stop using the CST within seven days or be fined €5,000 per day.
The Covid Safe Ticket scheme has been extended by the Brussels government for a further three months. It was due to expire on 15 January, but will now continue until 15 April. Brussels health minister Alain Maron said the decision to extend the CST follows an opinion from the Risk Assessment Group, which pointed to the dangers of the highly contagious omicron variant.
Brussels' Common Community Commission has urged residents to get tested for coronavirus at their local pharmacy, to relieve the pressure on the region's eight testing centres. It said some centres "were much busier than others" - notably the Pachéco facility in central Brussels - while the drive-in testing facility at Heysel was "easily accessible and easy to use".
Allowing supermarkets to sell coronavirus self-testing kits has put pressure on pharmacies to offer more competitive prices. The Belgian Pharmaceutical Association said pharmacists had always been free to set their own prices, and these had dropped by between €5 and €6 on average. Competition from supermarkets - where tests can cost as little as €3 - is one factor. But another is a surge in supply. Self-tests are much more easily available today than they were during earlier stages of the pandemic.
The Brussels commune of Saint-Josse will reopen its free coronavirus testing centre on 10 January. Anyone can turn up without an appointment at Rue Mérinos 1b, Monday to Friday from 9.00 to 17.00.
Almost half a million coronavirus PCR tests were carried out at various centres around the country between Christmas and New Year, with about 15% of the tests coming back positive. On 30 December, the last full day for which we have data from Sciensano, 15,999 cases of Covid-19 were detected. There were queues of up to 200 people outside the Pachéco testing centre in central Brussels on New Year's Eve.
Belgium's health ministers have agreed to relax the rules on quarantine and testing for people who become infected with coronavirus and their (vaccinated) close contacts. The decision has several goals: to avoid labs getting overstretched with too many PCR tests, to avoid people calling their GP needlessly, and to reduce absenteeism in the workplace. "We fear an outbreak of cases from Monday," said federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke. "And we absolutely want to prevent our testing system from cracking. We also want to avoid the saturation of GPs and let them do their work. The priority is therefore to test people who have symptoms. We have changed the testing strategy to be able to maintain testing of symptomatic people."
So what changes in practice? From next Monday (10 January), a person who tests positive must self-isolate for seven days and no longer 10. A high-risk contact who is fully vaccinated (booster dose, or less than five months since receiving their second dose) is no longer required to quarantine or take a test when they learn they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive. At the moment, they are required to quarantine for at least four days and perform daily self-tests for a few days after. For people who have not yet received their booster dose or who had their second jab more than five months ago, quarantine should last at least three days and self-tests must be carried out daily up to the seventh day. There is no change for non-vaccinated people who are a high-risk contact. They will have to be tested on days 1 and 7 and stay in quarantine until a negative result from the second test. For children who are too young to be vaccinated (under-fives), the rules depend on the vaccination status of their parents. Young people aged 12-17 are considered to be fully vaccinated even without the booster dose, and regardless of when they received their second jab.
Pieter Timmermans, chief executive of the Federation of Belgian Businesses (FEB), welcomed the move, which he said went "in the right direction to avoid a complete implosion of the health system and the economy". Employers are "relieved", said Hans Maertens, managing director of Flemish business body Voka, adding: "We feared a shutdown in many sectors if the old rules were maintained in the coming weeks."
"I understand why we are taking these measures," said virologist Marc Van Ranst. "We are reducing the burden on the first line of care, and we respond to fears of absenteeism in critical sectors." But he added that the move was not without risk. Without an imposed quarantine, there is a greater risk that vaccinated people with no symptoms are unknowingly passing the virus on to others. Van Ranst said it was essential that people continued to limit their contacts and wear an FFP2 mask for the first few days after coming into contact with an infected person. He also recommends taking a swab sample from the throat as well as the nose, as the omicron variant is less detectable in the nose.
Schools and children
Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke urged parents to carry out a coronavirus self-test on their children before returning to school on Monday. They cost as little as €3 in supermarkets. Christine Mahy, president of the Belgian network for the fight against poverty, said the tests should be offered for free, through schools. Vandenbroucke responded: "I would like it to be free. But we cannot set up a reimbursement system in supermarkets like the one that exists in pharmacies. It would take a year or two of work and administrative preparations. It just isn't possible."
The Council of State has rejected an urgent appeal from the parents of two school pupils in Flanders, who had complained against the requirement to wear masks in class from the age of six. One of the complainants had dyslexia and received help from a speech therapist, and found following lessons difficult with masks. The other had a skin condition which made wearing a mask uncomfortable. The Council of State said there were "many gaps" in the arguments put forward and that there was insufficient evidence to justify an emergency overturning of the order. It noted that parents can still ask a doctor for an exemption certificate.
More than 1,000 children aged five to 11 have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine at the Pachéco centre in downtown Brussels, since vaccination was extended to this age group on 22 December. From Monday (10 January), all seven vaccination centres in the region will be ready to vaccinate young children. The Common Community Commission is appealing for help from pediatricians and nurses who are used to working with children. Some vaccination centres will limit their vaccination appointments for children to time slots outside of school hours, generally Wednesday afternoons and on Saturday. Children must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Smurf pictures will adorn the walls and children can watch a cartoon on an iPad to put them at ease, with a lollipop offered once vaccinated. A third of the regular adult Pfizer vaccine is administered - with a second dose about a month later.
All schools - nursery, primary and secondary - returned to full-time face-to-face teaching when the new term began on 10 January, the consultative committee has agreed. Masks remain compulsory from the age of six and meetings between staff members or with parents should be held remotely. Day trips are permitted, but overnight stays cannot be organised. Schools must also try to avoid mixing classes in common indoor areas, such as at lunchtime. The rules on remote working remain unchanged at 80%. "The rapid spread of omicron within our country and among the population could put great pressure on our health care services, our businesses and our schools", said prime minister Alexander De Croo. He warned: "The situation will get worse before it gets better."
Police have opened an investigation into a possible data protection breach after a computer was stolen from the Pachéco vaccination and testing centre in central Brussels. The computer contains data on vaccinations. The theft happened overnight in the early hours of last Tuesday. The thief's motive is unclear.
Belgium will receive half a million doses of the newly approved Novavax coronavirus vaccine in the coming weeks. The vaccine will be available from the end of February until late March. It will initially be reserved for people who are potentially allergic to certain components of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, or who have been unable to receive all three doses because they had a significant adverse reaction. It is hoped that the vaccine will also appeal to people who have refused to get vaccinated due to fears about the safety of messenger RNA vaccines - which scientists say are unfounded. To be sure of receiving the Novavax vaccine, you cannot simply turn up to a vaccination centre - you will need to book an appointment via Bruvax (Brussels) or QVax (Wallonia and Flanders).
Wallonia's vaccination campaign for children aged five to 11 has begun, after a pilot phase in the Liège and Mons vaccination centres last week. Some 15,000 appointments have already been made. Children under 12 will only be offered time slots outside school hours - namely Wednesday afternoons and Saturdays. Vaccination centres in the region have been redesigned to better accommodate young people, including cartoons on a TV screen during the 15-minute observation period after the injection.
Several groups of immunocompromised people will receive a fourth dose of the coronavirus vaccine, health minister Frank Vandenbroucke has confirmed. "It's very specific - for some people, the third dose was not really a booster. They needed a third to achieve the base level of immunity." The Superior Health Council will confirm which health conditions require a fourth dose.
A vaccination centre for children has been set up inside Antwerp Zoo to help put young people at ease. Instead of having to sit around for 15 minutes after the jab, children can visit the monkey enclosure - still under the watchful eye of medics. Vaccinations for five to 11-year-olds will take place at the zoo on Wednesday afternoons and at weekends.
More than 11,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine have been administered in Brussels pharmacies since the end of September, as part of a project by the Common Community Commission to improve vaccination coverage among the 40% of residents who do not have a GP. The Pharma-On-Tour project allows pharmacists to organise a mobile vaccination session, with medical teams from the Cocom visiting to administer the jabs on a given day. Some 22 Brussels pharmacies are now taking part in the project - but there are big differences among the region's 19 municipalities. In Schaerbeek, more than 4,000 doses have been given. In Ganshoren, Koekelberg and Berchem-Sainte-Agathe combined, just 56.
Prime minister Alexander De Croo has indicated that he is ready to reconsider his position on compulsory vaccination. "We really need to rethink our whole reasoning," he told De Zondag newspaper. "You are vaccinated for your own health, but also for that of others. I believe more in persuasion than in obligation, but when you see that there are five times more unvaccinated people in intensive care, we can no longer avoid this question. The objective is clear: everyone must be vaccinated. If the route of compulsory vaccination can help, then I would like to consider it." He added: "A relatively small group [the unvaccinated] has too much impact on our healthcare system. We cannot allow that. Once the plan was: how to avoid new waves. Today it should be: how to keep future waves as flat as possible. Because let's face it: Omicron will not be the last wave either. The virus will proliferate in the years to come. We have to learn to live with it."$
An investigation by VRT has found rush-hour public transport frequently exceeds the safe levels of CO². Reporters took CO² meters with them on 46 peak-time journeys. Half of the samples taken were above the safe limit of 900ppm - these were journeys in Brussels and Antwerp. Among the 14 samples taken in Brussels, 10 were too high. The worst reading was a crowded tram in Antwerp, with its windows closed, where the measurement was 1,691ppm.
Despite working from home being required four days a week, public transport use in Brussels is almost back to pre-pandemic levels, according to the latest figures from the Stib. In its annual report, the operator says 274 million trips were made on the network last year. In early December, occupancy was at 90% of the level seen in December 2019. However, the Stib is not expecting a full return to normal until the end of 2023.
The SNCB will return to operating a full service from 10 January, the rail operator has announced. Since the beginning of December it had been forced to cancel several peak-time journeys due to staff quarantine.
A court in Brussels has sentenced 16 people to prison terms of up to a year for attempting to travel from Brussels Airport with falsified test result certificates. These are the first convictions, among a group of 160 people facing prosecution. In total, 820 people have been caught at the airport trying to fly with fake documents - most of whom agreed to pay a €750 fine to avoid court.
Police in Antwerp have had to intervene and direct road traffic, after streets in the city centre became saturated with vehicles coming from the Netherlands, where non-essential shops and restaurants are closed. There has been a noticeable influx of Dutch visitors this week. Police also handled crowd control at Antwerp Central station, as trains crossing the border have been crowded with daytrippers.
Fifteen Belgian general practitioners have been suspended for making negative comments about the coronavirus vaccine to patients, RTL reports. The Order of Physicians opened investigations into 90 doctors on the basis of complaints. After investigation, 22 GPs were sanctioned, including 15 who were suspended for periods ranging from one month to two years. "A doctor must properly inform his patient, and let him consent freely," the Order says. "We will crack down firmly against the dissemination of information that does not fit with the current state of science."
Belgium's Council of State has given its approval for a draft law imposing compulsory vaccination on all healthcare workers. The law is due to enter force on 1 April, although the legislative process is not yet fully complete. The Council of State was asked for its opinion on the legality of the measures. "The federal authorities are empowered to make vaccination compulsory," its ruling says. "This may apply to the entire population or to a part of it, for which vaccination is necessary because of the nature of the disease or virus in question."
Unlike previous waves of the pandemic, when hospitals were required to reserve a percentage of beds for coronavirus patients and postpone some non-urgent care, a different approach is being considered if the omicron variant leads to a spike in hospitalisations. An emergency plan leaked to several newspapers on Tuesday suggests that, in the worst-case scenario, "Covid care will no longer have priority over others". Marcel Van der Auwera, who chairs the "Hospital & Transport Surge Capacity" committee, said: "It is no longer possible to make so many means available for one person. We will therefore establish a list of priorities for phase 3. If this happens, only people with urgent problems can be admitted to the hospital." Belgium is currently in phase 1B, meaning 50% of intensive care beds are reserved for coronavirus patients.
UZ Brussel university hospital has banned visits from 10 January, as hospital staff are overstretched and testing and quarantine rules for non-symptomatic fully vaccinated people are relaxed. Exceptions will apply for some patients, for example those receiving palliative care. Parents can still accompany children, but siblings will not be allowed.
Nurses are fleeing hospitals and preferring to find work in vaccination centres, RTBF reports. "For the first time in 18 years, I was able to celebrate Christmas and New Year with my family," one nurse told the broadcaster. "The work is less stressful physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Yes, it is more repetitive, but it's a lot less dramatic. I was worn out. Here, I've found a good balance." Vanessa Rodriguez, who works for a temp agency specialising in healthcare staff, confirms the trend: "There is a demand from temporary workers to go to vaccination centers because the working conditions are different. It allows them to breathe a little. There is no real financial advantage to working in a hospital over a vaccination centre." Danny De Clercq, director of care at the Iris-Sud hospital network, said: "This is only one of the reasons why it is difficult to find staff. There are other solutions for vaccination centres than to employ nurses who are already in short supply."
The coronavirus crisis has led to an increase in tobacco consumption in Belgium, according to the latest survey by the Foundation Against Cancer. The foundation believes there is a real risk that this trend will continue. The survey estimates that 27% of Belgians smoke, up from 23% before the coronavirus crisis began. A third of smokers surveyed said their consumption had increased. "Years of healthy life are thus going up in smoke," the foundation concluded.
Some 710 non-profit associations, including amateur sports clubs, will receive a compensation payout of €40 per affiliated member from the Brussels region, after a year of restrictions during which clubs have not been able to benefit from their usual income generated by ticket sales, for example, or the sale of drinks at a buvette.
The Council of State has rejected an appeal from 25 bowling alley operators against the 23 December coronavirus decree which ordered them to close. The court said the temporary closure was proportionate, and only applied to recreational use. Nothing prevents professional bowlers from carrying on with training sessions.
Organisers of the famous Binche carnival are considering shortening this year's celebrations to cover just Mardi Gras. Normally the festivities fill a long weekend. The city will decide next week. The idea of postponing the carnival until later in the spring has reportedly been rejected. It will likely go ahead in a reduced form, with the Covid Safe Ticket and outdoor catering only.
After theatres and cultural centres, it's the turn of bowling alleys to take legal action in an attempt to overturn the latest coronavirus restrictions. Some 25 bowling alley operators, supported bvy the Belgian Sporting Federation of Bowling, have lodged an appeal with the Council of State. The federation describes the order to close as "discriminatory", given that other indoor sport can still go ahead. "Officially, professional players are still allowed to train, but most bowling centres cannot open just for them, as it would not generate enough income," a spokesman explained.
Two wings at Saint-Gilles prison were placed in quarantine, after 19 inmates tested positive for coronavirus. According to the CGSP union, the prison still suffers from overcrowding: it has a maximum capacity of 850 prisoners, but the actual figure is closer to 900. Inmates are not due to be transferred to the new Haren mega-prison until next September.
FFP2 masks will be compulsory for all staff in nursing homes in Flanders and Wallonia. The masks offer better protection to the wearer than ordinary surgical masks, as they filter inhaled air. Before Christmas, the Brussels region asked all care homes to check their reserves of FFP2 masks. The FFP2 requirement does not apply to visitors, although it is highly recommended that they carry out an antigen self-test on the day of the visit.