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Archived: Belgium's second wave of coronavirus, October 2020-January 2021

02:48 18/12/2020
This archived article relates to Belgium's second wave of coronavirus. It was last updated on 30 January 2021. For all the latest up-to-date information, see www.thebulletin.be/coronavirus

What's the situation like at the moment?

Belgium's third wave of coronavirus infections "has started", says microbiologist Emmanuel André. "The British variant is spreading. At the end of February, beginning of March, it will be the main virus strain in Belgium."

Belgium's coronavirus figures are on the rise again and interfederal spokesman Steven Van Gucht says the strongest increases are among children and teenagers. They account for one in five new infections. The crisis centre estimates that between 10 and 20% of new contaminations are the British variant of the virus, which is known to have a worse impact on young people.

A group of experts has submitted a report to the government warning that Belgium's coronavirus situation "is alarming". After analysing 1,800 positive samples, the authors warn that the British strain of coronavirus is "at least 65% more contagious" and is currently responsible for between 15 and 25% of all positive test results. "At the end of February, 90% of those infected in Belgium will have the British variant," the report warns. "The introduction of the UK variant into society took place in the first week of January."

Belgium's coronavirus consultative committee has decided not to make any major changes to the current restrictions for at least another fortnight - with one small exception. Driving lessons can resume.

Belgium could have to take "even stronger measures" to limit the spread of more contagious coronavirus strains, ULB epidemiologist Marius Gilbert has warned. "We must react much faster, much stronger, testing everyone, to try to limit these possible outbreaks before they spread." KU Leuven biostatistician Geert Molenberghs believes up to a quarter of new contaminations are due to the British variant.

Belgium's current coronavirus measures, which took effect on 2 November and were initially applicable until 15 January, have been extended to 1 March. These include the closure of hairdressers, the one-person limit on close contacts indoors and the night-time curfew.

After a growing number of infections, the City of Antwerp has written to 6,500 residents to ask them to take a free coronavirus test. This includes children over six, who until now have not routinely been tested.

The Brussels region has extended its own coronavirus restrictions to 1 March. These include the 22.00-6.00 curfew, the closure of all shops at 20.00 and a ban on drinking alcohol in public. Wallonia, meanwhile, has extended its curfew until 15 February.

A first case of the South African variant of coronavirus, B.1.351, has been detected in Belgium. The patient in West Flanders, who has since died, had not travelled recently.

As coronavirus deaths in Belgium exceed the 20,000 mark, RTBF asked epidemiologist Yves Coppieters when we might see daily deaths reduced to zero. He forecasts that 10 fewer deaths per day can be avoided for every 100,000 people vaccinated. Once about 600,000 people are vaccinated - the most vulnerable - it is conceivable that deaths could be close to zero.

"Infection rates are rising especially in Flanders," said interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem on Wednesday. "The next few days will be crucial to reverse a trend of persistent increases." He said the biggest growth in cases in the past week was among children under 10, up 34%.

"Fate is in our hands," virologist Marc Van Ranst has warned. "If we respect the rules at Christmas and New Year, schools will not have to close." Flanders' education minister Ben Weyts believes schools should reopen as planned on 4 January. His Francophone equivalent, Caroline Désir, says schools will remain open until at least the end of January.

According to infectious disease specialist Erika Vlieghe, the former chair of Belgium's coronavirus exit strategy working group, "there is no solid plan" for tackling a new wave of the virus after Christmas. She said more needed to be done to build up a strategic stockpile of medical supplies and to prepare a plan for a quick deployment of increased testing and contact tracing.

Belgium's Coronalert app is now compatible with the contact-tracing apps in 10 other European countries: Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Cyprus. The Belgian app will from now on be able to inform users if they have come into close contact with an infected person in one of the other countries, who is using their app. Coronalert has so far been downloaded 2.3 million times. It is estimated that 80% of those who have downloaded it use it actively.

According to KU Leuven virologist Emmanuel André: "We will have to see in the coming days whether this trend is confirmed. However, I believe that the measures are already very severe and that toughening them does not seem necessary. We must above all insist that they are respected as much as possible. The third wave is in front of us, and the risk is real if we allow more contacts." André added that politicians' calls for a relaxation of the current rules were premature. "We sometimes see politicians who want to offer people a bright future. In people's minds, if politicians say that the measures are no longer necessary or that they can be called into question, that initiates a feeling of relaxation. Currently, there is a clear north-south difference in relation to this. In Flanders, the N-VA is very united with the measures decreed by the federal government. On the other hand, on the French-speaking side, there are calls for an early easing of the measures, which is a very bad idea."

Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo has praised "the change in behaviour of 11 million Belgians" but said it was too early to say that the second coronavirus peak had been reached. "We are in a marathon and we have to prepare for long-term measures," he said, adding: "It is clear that the end-of-year celebrations will have to be done in a different way."

Belgium has put on hold plans to create a "coronavirus barometer", with differing levels which would determine which sectors can reopen and when. The colour-coded barometer had been several weeks in the making, but health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said: "We are going to have to thoroughly review the idea of a barometer. This is not the tool we need today. It must be thoroughly rethought."

The coronavirus restrictions will be eased differently this time than during the first wave, according to Belgium's Covid commissioner Pedro Facon, who is already working on the preparations for the second coronavirus "exit strategy", similar to that implemented in May and June. The reopening will be much more phased, sector-by-sector, and spread out over a longer period of time. Facon said: "The strategy will have to be phased, balanced and conditioned. It will be necessary to define which sectors will be able to relax their rules first."

Cafes, restaurants, cultural venues, theme parks and businesses requiring close physical contact with customers - such as hairdressers, beauty salons and massage parlours - will remain closed until the measures are reassessed in mid-January, so a pre-Christmas haircut is sadly off-limits.

What does 2021 have in store for us? According to infectious disease specialist Erika Vlieghe, who chairs Belgium's new advisory committee on the coronavirus measures: "There will be no spectacular change in the measures over the next few months, but changes can be expected, thanks to the vaccine, and thanks to the end of winter in particular. It won't be a normal year, but little by little we will be able to do more things." She added: "Not everything is perfect, of course, but we started at zero and now there is a strategy, even if there are still things to improve. There won't be an easy fix, what it takes is a well-thought-out strategy - and patience. That's the reality in a crisis like this. Closing the borders within Europe is taboo but there is a need to develop a coherent European policy."

Christmas

A majority of Belgians say they will not invite anyone to their home to celebrate Christmas together. 60% of respondents to a recent poll said they would spend Christmas only with the people living under their roof. Eight in 10 participants nationwide (and six in 10 in Brussels) believed non-essential foreign travel should have been banned over Christmas. 70% of respondents were convinced that a third wave of the epidemic is on its way in January, because of the Christmas holidays. And 38% said they were finding the second coronavirus shutdown more difficult than the first.

Can police visit your home this Christmas to check you're following the rules on social contacts? Justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne says this is possible only under specific circumstances. Police must either have a search warrant, or if they believe there are "serious indications" of illegal activity, such as a large number of parked cars in your driveway or significant levels of noise.

Prosecutors have begun an investigation into a Christmas meal at a Molenbeek police station, which appeared to breach the coronavirus rules on social contacts. A photo of about 10 officers around a table, enjoying a raclette together, spread rapidly on social media.

The Brussels-West police zone has begun an internal investigation after a photo was shared on social media showing several officers gathered round a table for a festive meal together, in an apparent breach of the coronavirus rules.

The royal palace has confirmed details of a scaled-back Christmas Eve celebration. "11 million at Christmas: A chain of lights" will be televised on RTBF and VRT from 18.00 on 24 December. It will feature short concerts from several places in Belgium, featuring Axelle Red, Typh Barrow and Hooverphonic, among others. There will also be a tribute to exceptional members of the public who have made a difference during the coronavirus crisis - and a tribute to those who have died. King Philippe will conclude the event with a speech. He will invite every Belgian to illuminate their home for the occasion.

There will be no Christmas relaxation to the rule on close social contacts. You can still only invite one person to your home - always the same person. This close contact is someone with whom you do not have to respect a 1.5-metre distance or wear a mask. If you live alone, you can invite two people to your home at the same time on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Wearing a mask will become compulsory again along the Belgian seafront from 19 December to 3 January, West Flanders governor Carl Decaluwé has announced, after consulting with the mayors of all coastal municipalities. The Flemish coast is expecting an influx of visitors for the Christmas and New Year holidays. "Holiday homes will be very busy," Decaluwé said. "In order to guarantee everyone's safety, this measure was necessary." An exemption applies to runners and cyclists.

A sizeable chunk of the population say they plan to flout the rules on social contacts at Christmas. The University of Antwerp poll found a third of respondents considered it "unlikely" that they will respect any limits on close contacts over the festive period. 86% of the 26,000 people polled said they would spend Saint-Nicholas with just their close family, compared to 75% on New Year's Eve and 68% at Christmas itself.

Prime minister Alexander De Croo stressed: "Most Belgians understand that we are going to spend Christmas in a different way. It will be a small-scale Christmas, it will be a careful Christmas."

Frédérique Jacobs, head of the infectious disease department at Erasmus hospital, says the end-of-year celebrations present a "very very big risk" to Belgium's coronavirus situation. "You are going to have people from different generations very close together, for many hours, who are going to eat and drink, so, by definition, are not going to wear the mask. These people will then celebrate the New Year a week later with different friends, at the precise moment when they are at their most contagious. So you have a very high risk of having an explosion in the number of cases."

The mayor of Hamoir, Patrick Lecerf, has said publicly that he plans to flout the rules on social contacts over Christmas. In an interview, he said he intended to invite his son, daughter-in-law and their children to his home this festive season. The rules allow for one visitor - two if you live alone. Lecerf argues that the rule "doesn't make much sense", since his invitees all live together in the same bubble. Christophe Collignon, Walloon minister for local authorities, said: "Mr Lecerf is a mayor and therefore he has a duty to set an example."

Seeing people

Your household can have "close" contact with a maximum of one person. "Close" contact means someone you kiss or hug, with whom you do not keep a 1.5-metre distance and do not wear a mask.

Your household can invite just this one person to visit. Outdoor gatherings are limited to four people outside your household, wearing a mask and respecting safe distancing. Children under 12 do not count towards the total.

After "knuffelcontact" in Flanders, it's the turn of French-speaking Belgium to elect its word of the year. The winner, as voted by readers of Le Soir and viewers and listeners of RTBF, is "deconfinement" - a term commonly used over the summer to describe the gradual relaxtion of the rules after the first coronavirus shutdown. Other candidates included coronapéro, covidiot and "bulle (sociale)".

Belgium's federal crisis centre has sought to clarify what counts as a "close contact" - the one person you are allowed to invite to your home without a mask or distancing (two, if you live alone this Christmas). Children under 12 who visit your home should be counted as close contacts. The crisis centre claims this has been the case since the rules on Christmas contacts were confirmed in November. "On our website, no distinction is made for children," a spokesman said. However, according to Het Nieuwsblad, the coronavirus information hotline has consistently given incorrect information, telling callers that children under 12 do not count.

Knuffelcontact has been named Word of the Year by the Van Dale Dutch-language experts, following a public vote. The word literally translates to “cuddle contact” or “hug buddy” and refers to the one close contact outside of one’s household as required by coronavirus regulations. Most of the nominated words this year had to do with the coronavirus, but knuffelcontact left them all in the dust with 53.3% of the vote. In second place was covidioot (a play on the words Covid and idioot, or idiot), trailing behind with 8.7%. In third place was hoestschaamte (feeling sheepish about coughing) at 7.3%.

While you can get together in groups of up to four in your garden, interior minister Annelies Verlinden says this is only possible if you have a direct access to your garden from the street. "You should not be passing through the house to get to it." She said police could be called out to reports of noisy outdoor parties with more than four people present. "But they won't systematically be ringing at everyone's door during the festive period," she added."

Sales of outdoor heaters have risen in recent weeks, as Belgian households make plans for outdoor get-togethers. Firefighters fear an increase in call-outs for burns and carbon monoxide poisoning if the devices are not used properly. Users should keep a fire extinguisher nearby and not use heaters in a garage or garden shed. "If the area is not sufficiently ventilated, there is a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning," a fire brigade spokesman said. "It is important that these heaters are not used in closed or semi-closed environments." Firefighters have also reminded people that there is a nationwide ban on the sale and use of fireworks.

The fines for people attending or organising "lockdown parties" will be increased, Belgium's College of Prosecutors-General has confirmed. Taking part could cost you between €250 and €750. The fine for organisers could range from the current €750 to €4,000. Sound equipment can be seized, as can the vehicles of those present. The tougher measures apply to organised illegal parties. Smaller get-togethers with friends or family, which are still in breach of the rules, will continue to be sanctioned in the same way as they are now.

Why are Belgium's rules on social contacts at Christmas stricter than our neighbouring countries? Interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem says: "The other countries are very, very liberal, to say the least. Belgium has a situation for the moment where epidemiologically speaking, we are not yet in a very good position. We are more or less at the level we saw in April when there was no freedom to go to the stores. Within a month, things should be better."

A curfew is in place between midnight and 5.00 in the morning in Flanders, and from 22.00 until 6.00 in Wallonia and Brussels. You should stay home during these hours, except for essential outings such as going to work or a medical need. 

Wallonia and Brussels have both decided to extend their night-time curfew until at least 15 January. It had been due to expire on 13 December. The curfew remains from 22.00-6.00 - while elsewhere in Belgium it is from midnight to 5.00. On Christmas Eve, residents in Wallonia can stay out until midnight.

The Brussels region has decided not to relax its night-time curfew on Christmas Eve. It will remain in place from 22.00 to 6.00. Ixelles mayor Christos Doulkeridis said the region's 19 mayors were unanimous on the decision. "No matter how hard we look, we can't find anything that would allow us to say that we can change the rules currently in force," he said. In Wallonia, people can stay out on 24 December until midnight. In Flanders, the curfew remains from midnight to 5.00 every night.

Police in Limburg province are planning to use thermal imaging drones to ensure there are no large gatherings or fireworks during the Christmas holidays. The cameras are capable of detecting human presence at night, including inside buildings. "Our aim is certainly not to go into private gardens. We don't use drones for that," a police spokesman said. Lawyer Cédric Bernes said: "The use of cameras and drones by police is legal, but it must be done for certain purposes and with respect for privacy."

Daytrippers are again allowed to visit the Hautes Fagnes. Cars had been turned away for the past two weekends because of overcrowding. The mayor of Waimes, Daniel Stoffels, hopes that the arrival of snow elsewhere in Belgium in recent days will mean "people will be less curious about snow" in the Hautes Fagnes. Visitor numbers will still be limited - there is space for about 2,000 cars.

Wallonia intends to relax, or scrap, its curfew on Christmas Eve to allow family celebrations to go ahead. However, the region's minister-president Elio Di Rupo said restrictions would remain in place on New Year's Eve.

Federal police are issuing an average of 165 fines per night to people breaking the curfew, since the rule came into force in mid-October. According to the interior ministry, since March, 173,000 people have been booked for breaching the coronavirus rules in some form or other, such as non-essential travel, not wearing a mask or non-compliance with the rules on distancing and social contacts.

While there is no formal ban on non-essential travel around Belgium, crisis centre spokesman Antoine Iseux has warned: "It is too early to embark on excursions to tourist hotspots." He said: "We are not yet rid of the coronavirus. But for the first time in a long time, there is an improvement. It's normal to want to go out for some fresh air. But a word of advice: don't venture too far from home. Discover your own surroundings, on foot, by bike, and avoid crowded places."

Public events

Faced with uncertainty around coronavirus, the organisers of the Brussels Motor Show have announced that the 2021 edition is cancelled. The event hopes to be back in January 2022. The fair attracts nearly half a million visitors each year.

Christmas markets in Belgium are cancelled - but the City of Brussels has not ruled out organising a 2020 edition of Winter Wonders, albeit in a different form. Brussels Major Events, the fair's organiser, is looking at how to implement a Covid-safe version of the popular festive attraction.

Stavelot has cancelled its traditional carnival procession for a second year running, due to ongoing coronavirus situation. The festival committee, which brings together all the folklore and musical societies that participate in the procession, agreed that the event could not go ahead safely on 13-15 March as planned. The committee voted against postponing the procession to 4 July. Instead it will, hopefully, be held in 2022.

The 2021 edition of the Batibouw construction and renovation fair will become a virtual event due to the coronavirus crisis, organisers have announced. The fair is normally held at Brussels Expo in late February/early March. "The current context makes it impossible to hold a show, in particular the size of that of Batibouw, on a face-to-face basis," the organisers said. Another major 2021 event at Brussels Expo, January's Motor Show, has been cancelled.

With nightclubs closed and no big parties or wedding receptions, champagne in Belgium has never been cheaper. It's common to find €10 bottles in some supermarkets, and some producers are selling at a loss to clear stock. Half of all champagne sales in Belgium are made in December. Rohan Jordan, the wine purchasing manager at Colruyt, said: "It is clearly the right time to stock up a bit. The champagne market has been complicated since the start of Covid, since it is the festive product par excellence."

Religious services with a maximum of 15 people will be allowed again from Sunday, federal justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne has announced, after consulting with religious leaders on Wednesday. The relaxed rules come after Belgium's Council of State ruled that the ban on services breached the constitutional right to freedom of worship. Places of worship can accommodate up to 15 people, provided there is at least 10m² of space per person. Smaller venues (less than 150m²) will need to apply a smaller limit.

Sport

All professional sports matches must be played without spectators. This applies to all professional sport, both indoor and outdoor. Sports clubs and gyms are closed. All amateur sports fixtures for over-12s are cancelled nationwide. Skiing in Belgium is banned this winter. 

Swimming pools were allowed to reopen on 1 December - but many are waiting, as they are not yet ready. A spokesman for the Calypso pool in Watermael-Boitsfort said it had been impossible to put all the necessary safety measures in place in time, following Friday's announcement. "We weren't expecting to be allowed to reopen until the new year," he said.

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.

Culture and museums

Theatres, cinemas and cultural centres are closed throughout Belgium. Museums reopeed on 1 December.

Museums in Brussels saw attendance figures fall by 58% last year, representing a loss of €20 million, new stats from the Brussels Museums association reveal. Museums in the capital were closed from 14 March to 18 May, and again from 23 October to 1 December. Outside of these periods, 2.1 million people visited a museum in 2020.

The Atomium reported a 75% drop in visitor numbers in 2020, welcoming just 162,000 people compared to 650,000 in the previous year. Belgians made up 85% of the visitors, instead of the usual 30%.

Cultural venues and organisations in Brussels can apply for a second round of emergency funding from the Brussels region. A new grant of €2,000 is available. In the first round, 246 organisations benefited. Organisations that did not apply the first time round can put in an application now and receive the full €4,000.

With cultural events cancelled, Brussels' Beursschouwburg has turned itself into a day shelter for the homeless. From Monday to Friday, it will welcome homeless people for a hot drink, to use the toilet and recharge their phone. Administrative and social assistance is also available as well as advice on employment, and access to computers and the internet.

Bozar has decided to cancel all of its activities until the end of the year "out of respect for the efforts made by medical staff. It seems very important to us to stick together for the good of public health."

The Ancienne Belgique has cancelled all events until the end of the year. General manager Tom Bonte said the "painful" decision was taken "after careful consideration. Now more than ever, AB believes that it must contribute to the effort to decongest hospitals." AB is now looking forward to 2021 and believes "music could play an important role after the crisis". Ticket-holders for cancelled concerts will be contacted.

Hospitals

Brussels' healthcare personnel have been collectively named Brusseleirs of the Year by the organisation be.brusseleir. The award is intended for all medical staff, from nurses to ambulance drivers, doctors and nursing home workers, for their role in the fight against coronavirus.

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."

Pressure, chronic stress, anxiety. The coronavirus crisis is taking its toll on Belgium's healthcare personnel, according to a poll of 3,100 people in December by public health institute Sciensano and KU Leuven university. Some 51% said they were under pressure - compared to 24% before the coronavirus crisis - while 46% said it was impossible to relax after a day's work. Four out of 10 respondents had problems sleeping and a quarter had problems concentrating. Common complaints included muscle pain, headaches and increased anxiety. Sciensano said: "The severity of the psychological and physical reactions in this group is still very high. We must stress the importance of appropriate and accessible support for these professionals and their managers."

Belgium's first corona babies - who were conceived at the start of the shutdown in March - are being born. Liège CHU university hospital's maternity ward is expecting a busy January. A maternity department in Antwerp is expecting an extra 400-500 births in 2021, and hopes to discharge some mothers and newborn babies earlier to free up space.

Increasing the number of Covid-19 intensive care beds in hospitals leads to a greater risk of mortality, according to a study by the Belgian Society of Intensive Medicine. Researchers looked at hospital mortality data between March and August and found an increase mortality rate in hospitals that had added extra intensive care capacity to cope with demand. This is partly because nursing staff from other hospital wards were seconded to intensive care, often with insufficient training. The study said the best scenario would have been to transfer critically ill patients to other intensive care units in Belgium or neighbouring countries, rather than creating extra beds. The research also found that, on average, hospital admissions occur seven days after the first sign of symptoms - and a transfer to intensive care generally happens just one day later. Patients on ventilators spent, on average, 16 days in intensive care. Deaths in intensive care were most common around the 13th day.

The Red Cross is renewing its appeal for urgent blood donations. Stocks are critically low and fewer people are giving blood during this second wave. "The new measures have affected the number of blood collections that we can organise, in particular in high schools, universities and companies," the Red Cross said. "We need to increase our stock from almost 2,000 to 3,000 bags within 21 days." See www.donneurdesang.be

All Belgian hospitals have moved to phase 2B of their coronavirus preparations. This means 500 additional intensive care beds must be set aside for Covid-19 patients, as well as 300 additional beds on ordinary wards.

Since 1 October, 900 coronavirus patients have been transferred to another hospital because of a shortage of available beds or staff. East Flanders has received the most patients from other parts of Belgium - 181 in total. Some 23 patients were transferred from Belgian hospitals to Germany for treatment.

Hospital staff will be paid a €985 thank-you bonus for their work during the second wave of the coronavirus crisis, health minister Frank Vandenbroucke has announced. All full-time staff, working between September and November, will receive the cash before the end of the year. "All these men and women in our hospitals deserve this incentive for the exceptional efforts they have made," Vandenbroucke said. Trade union Setca said it was "a first step towards recognition of the work done" but that "the fight is far from over".

The Brussels government has approved a one-off €985 grant for workers in the aid and care sector - the same as that already given to hospital staff. It applies to 17,000 employees, including temps and students.

Frontline medical personnel who work overtime in the fight against coronavirus have their culearnings taxed at 70%. One nurse in a large Brussels hospital told RTBF: "I feel this as a real contempt on the part of the authorities. Yes, we are lucky to still have a paid job. But at the very least, they could offer a tax exemption on overtime. It would really be an additional incentive to get absent staff back to work as soon as possible." A similar measure applied between April and June, in critical jobs, up to a maximum of 120 hours overtime.

Healthcare workers who test positive for coronavirus but are asymptomatic may be asked to continue working "in very exceptional cases", public health institute Sciensano said this week, and only if musall other options have already been exhausted. Covid-positive staff can only be deployed on coronavirus wards, to ensure basic care needs are maintained. The measure does not apply to cleaning and cooking staff.

Non-emergency operations are gradually resuming in Belgium's hospitals. Many procedures were postponed on 26 October when hospitals entered phase 2A of their coronavirus management plan. Kenneth Coeyne, chief physician at the Cliniques Saint-Jean in Brussels said: "These are small orthopedic operations, operations for hernias, eye operations or treatments for chronic pain. We had to postpone these operations for five weeks and they can resume today." But he added: "We are preparing for a third wave at the end of January. We hope that this will be the last thanks to the fact that the vaccination should start."muse

The Cliniques de l'Europe and Chirec hospital groups have cancelled all non-essential surgical procedures. The use of operating theatres has been reduced to a minimum so that personnel can be deployed to Covid-19 units. At Delta hospital, only six of the 25 operating theatres are still in use each day. "Only urgent operations which cannot be postponed are carried out," said medical director general Philippe El Haddad. "Consultations will continue. If a rapid intervention is necessary, we can carry it out."

Brussels social protection organisation Iriscare has received more than 300 applications from trained medical personnel to volunteer in the region's rest homes and hospitals. The organisation put out an appeal for anyone with medical qualifications in August. In the past week, interest from potential volunteers has spiked.

Speaking at the ULB lab's annual symposium, epidemiologist Marius Gilbert warned that within 14 days, coronavirus hospital occupancy could reach the same level seen back in March and early April. In some provinces, notably Hainaut and Liège, we are less than a week away from the peak seen during the first wave. While hospitals are better prepared than in the first wave, emergency healthcare services will still come under significant pressure in the weeks to come. A Liège CHU unversity hospital spokesman said: "Regarding Covid beds, we are at the same level of as in March-April." The hospital will, from Monday, turn some of its surgery wards into temporary Covid units. Some patients are having to be transferred to other hospitals within the province.

Residents in parts of Watermael-Boitsfort have resumed the nightly 20.00 clap for healthcare workers which was a common sight throughout Belgium during the first coronavirus wave.

The Belgian military has up to 1,500 personnel ready to lend a hand in the fight against the second wave of coronavirus, the defence ministry said. Support will include medical transport, logistics and the secondment of medics, paramedics and ambulance drivers. Other military personnel could be drafted in to help at coronavirus testing centres. Queen Astrid military hospital in Neder-Over-Heembeek, which specialises in burns victims, is accepting burns patients from other Belgian hospitals to ease the strain on their revsources.

The central square in Cinquantenaire park has been transformed into an ambulance disinfecting station, manned by military personnel. It is the third of its kind in the Brussels region after Anderlecht and the central fire station near Maximilian park. After each Covid patient transfer to hospital, vehicles must be disinfected inside and out. This can take up to an hour and a half.

Coronavirus testing

Belgium has begun testing asymptomatic people again, as test capacity has improved. Interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem said the test was best done seven days after coming into contact with an infected person, or returning from a red zone. The other good news: from next Monday, you will no longer need to go via your GP to get a coronavirus test prescription. Just head to Masante.be site and make an appointment at a test centre. On the site, you can also download a quarantine certificate for your employer. If the result comes back negative, you can end your quarantine.

The Red Cross has opened a coronavirus testing centre at Brussels-Midi station, for rail passengers returning from a red zone. It is capable of carrying out 750 tests per day.

Brussels' seven other coronavirus test centres will, from now, keep the same opening hours at weekends as during the week, to handle increased demand from returning travellers. The centres can be found on Boulevard Pachéco (centre), Albert (Forest), Mérode (Etterbeek), Heysel (Laeken), Molenbeek, Schaerbeek and Anderlecht, with a total weekly testing capacity of 70,000. Book your slot at https://brussels.testcovid.be/

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.

From January, anyone who has come into close contact with an infected person will be asked to take not one but two coronavirus tests - on the first and seventh day of their quarantine period. Workers in critical and essential functions (which are yet to be defined) will also be tested regularly. The changes are being made since Belgium has spare testing capacity. While asymptomatic people are now allowed to take a coronavirus test again, few are doing so. The number of tests per day remains stagnant around 30,000.

Fourteen doctors' surgeries and six coronavirus testing centres around Belgium are to begin testing a rapid 15-minute coronavirus antigen test. Supervised by KU Leuven, the first experiments will run until 6 January. These rapid tests will be used on patients with suspected symptoms of Covid-19. If the result is negative, the patient will be retested using the traditional, slower PCR method.

Private lab firm Eurofins says it is ready to open between 20 and 30 additional coronavirus screening centres around Belgium by February, representing an additional daily testing capacity of 4,500. On Monday, Eurofins will open a screening centre for three months in Saint-Josse, at Rue Saint-François 56. It will be its third Brussels test site, after Woluwe-Saint-Lambert and Auderghem.

The Brussels region has placed an order for 100,000 rapid coronavirus antigen tests, which aim to relieve some of the pressure on labs. The tests are primarily intended for nursing homes, in order to continue with preventative screening. "This is a first order, others will follow in the coming weeks," said Brussels health minister Alain Maron.

Brussels has a seventh coronavirus testing facility - at Bizet in Anderlecht. The new centre opened on Monday and can accommodate 1,200 people per day, bringing the Brussels region's daily testing capacity to 9,000. It is open daily from 9.00 until 16.00 (14.00 at weekends) by appointment.

Several biostatisticians and immunologists from UHasselt, UAntwerpen and VUB believe that it could be possible to test the entire Belgian population every week after the second wave of the epidemic, by performing group tests. Researchêr Pieter Libin says pooling and analysing samples from 32 people at the same time would allow mass PCR testing. In the event of a positive "pool", individual tests would follow. For this strategy to work, the number of infections in the population must drop to 500 active cases at the same time.

The Belgian Pharmaceutical Association says pharmacists in Belgium are willing and ready to offer quick-turnaround coronavirus tests to the public - but the legal framework for doing so has yet to be finalised. The antigen tests, using a nasal swab, could offer results within 30 minutes. "We are targeting patients with little or no symptoms," the association said. "We know that these people represent a large part of the people who are infected. They do not know it but they infect others. So it could be interesting to be able to allow them to have better access to a much faster test. These tests are much cheaper, they are a little less reliable. But the point is to be able to test a lot more people."

Less than half of people tested for coronavirus receive their result within the recommended limit of 24 hours, according to new stats compiled by federal authorities. Since the beginning of October, every lab in Belgium has been obliged to provide data on how quickly coronavirus test results are supplied. On 14 October, the last date reported, 35,000 people had to wait longer than 24 hours - that's half the number of tests carried out on that day. The situation is worsening each day: on 1 October, 65% of people received their result on time.

Two new coronavirus testing centres opened in Brussels recently - on Rue de l'Athénée Royal in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert and at Crossing football stadium in Schaerbeek. They are only accessible by prior appointment, for people with symptoms and with a prescription or QR code for a Covid test.

The Belgian state has settled its €6.5 million debt to Liège-based firm Zentech, after the government terminated a contract to supply 3.65 million coronavirus antibody tests. In September, the courts ordered Belgium to pay a fine of €10,000 per day for failing to fulfil its deal with the supplier.

Liège university hospital's drive-in coronavirus screening centre has reopened. It closed last Thursday in order to clear a backlog of samples. CHU Liège said the testing facility would now be limited to people who are showing symptoms. Coronavirus tests for travellers planning to go on holiday will no longer be carried out there.

A new mobile coronavirus testing facility has opened on the former Caterpillar site in Gosselies, Charleroi. Up to 150 tests can be performed daily, from 10.00-13.00 and 17.00-19.00. The aim is to relieve overcrowding in other testing centres in the region.

Brussels is currently carrying out 49,000 coronavirus tests per week. The aim is to reach 63,000 per week by the end of November, with the opening of new testing centres in Anderlecht, Schaerbeek and Molenbeek. Extra staff are also being hired in contact-tracing call centres.

A new coronavirus testing facility is set to open in Auderghem. It will be in the former police station, part of the town hall building. The test centre will have its own separate entrance, on Rue Emile Idiers, to avoid visitors mixing with town hall staff. A prescription and a booking are essential via www.auderghem.be/testing

The coronavirus testing facility in Brussels Airport is struggling to keep up with demand, with frustrated passengers facing long waits for the result they need before they are allowed to travel. It is, in theory, possible to take a fast-track test, costing €135, but several people have reported still having to wait several days. One Pakistani national, who paid for rapid tests for all six members of his family, told RTBF: "We came for the test on Thursday so we could get on the plane on Friday. I stayed here Friday all day. I came again on Saturday. I was told that they would send me an email. On Sunday I was told there was still a delay." He was forced to rearrange his flight times, at substantial extra cost, and will have to take the test again so that the result is still valid at the time of boarding. An airport spokeswoman said: "Unfortunately, given the current situation, the results are taking a little longer to arrive. We are working on a solution to be able to resolve this problem on as quickly as possible. Take into account a delay of 12 to 24 additional hours to obtain the results."

All of Brussels' coronavirus testing centres require you to book an appointment in advance. "Until now, most people who go to a testing centre have not registered beforehand," a spokeperson said. "This phenomenon generates a considerable overload of administrative work for the staff, who already have a busy schedule in view of the current situation." If you are showing symptoms and need a test, register at http://brussels.testcovid.be with your national register number and the code on the prescription from your doctor.

Work

Remote working is compulsory except for essential jobs that cannot be done from home. Workplace inspectors will carry out spot checks to see how many people are present, and to ensure that distancing rules are respected for those who still work on-site.

Employees who still have to be physically present at work will need to ask their company for an official document, De Tijd reports. Spot checks are planned - and inspectors may ask to see "documentary evidence confirming the necessity to be present at the workplace".

Coronavirus has led to a doubling in the number of work-related illnesses reported in 2020. Unsurprisingly, healthcare personnel make up a large number of the cases.

Belgian companies hiring foreign workers who have just arrived in the country will have a legal obligation to check that they have a negative Covid-19 test result. The measure is mainly targeted at firms in the construction, agriculture and horticulture sectors, which rely the most on foreign labour.

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.

Economy and labour minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne has asked workplace inspectors to carry out more spot checks on businesses, to ensure staff and management are following the rules on remote work. Since March, more than 20,000 companies have been inspected - around half of which were found to be violating coronavirus rules. Federal crisis centre spokesman Antoine Iseux said on Wednesday: "Remote working is less widespread than during the first wave - all you have to do is look at how much traffic there is on the roads. However it is compulsory where possible."

Traffic in Brussels was down by 18% last year, according to the latest TomTom Traffic Index. April was the quietest month of the year. Despite the traffic drop, Brussels remains Belgium's most congested city, followed by Antwerp in second place and Leuven in third.

Four in 10 Belgian workers cannot do their jobs from home, according to a new survey of 2,000 people by HR services company Acerta. Two years ago the figure was closer to six in 10. The study found the majority of remote workers found two to three days at home each week to be the right for them. Those who worked from home fewer than two days per week generally said they would like to be at home more.

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.

Workplace inspectors have carried out more than 17,500 spot checks on businesses since late March - and found more than half (8,170) of them were breaching coronavirus measures in some form or other. "The breaches were sometimes minor and could be quickly corrected," said federal labour minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne. Failure to observe the minimum 1.5-metre distance is the most common violation, followed by insufficient cleaning of common areas. Fun fact: electric hand dryers are not allowed in the workplace, as the force of the air can contribute to the spread of the virus.

The number of student jobs available in Belgium this summer was down by a third, according to analysis from the National Social Security Office (ONSS). Nearly 90,000 fewer students were employed in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same period last year. Most of the decline comes from the hotel and catering sector. For the jobs that did exist, the number of hours worked was also in decline.

Self-employed workers whose income has disappeared because of the coronavirus restrictions can claim extra compensation until the end of the year. The "droit passerelle" monthly payout has been doubled, as part of a €500 million emergency funding initiative announced last week. For a single person, the monthly amount increases from €1,291 to €2,583. A self-employed worker with dependent family will receive €3,228 - up from €1,614. The measure primarily applies to people who work in shut-down business sectors such as restaurants, bars, nightclubs, fairgrounds and culture.

The finance ministers of Belgium and Luxembourg have renewed their agreement relating to cross-border workers. The deal states that anyone ordinarily employed in Luxembourg (or Belgium), but who is working from home in the other country due to coronavirus, will continue to be treated in the same way for tax purposes.

A ministerial committee has approved 38 measures to ease the financial burden on businesses and the self-employed during the coronavirus crisis. They include the possibility of delaying tax payments, the extension of several tax breaks for businesses and the reopening of temporary unemployment due to force majeure for all companies. The "droit passerelle" monthly compensation package has been doubled for self-employed workers whose professional sector has been forced to close. Social charges payments can also be deferred, with the introduction of a debt repayment plan. The temporary posting of employees from shut-down businesses to jobs in the care sector will also be facilitated.

With most of its staff working from home, the European Commission has suspended its catering service until at least September 2021. L'Echo newspaper reports that 400 jobs are threatened at the Commission's various canteens. A further 1,000 are at risk if the European Parliament chooses to follow suit.

Eating/drinking

Restaurants, cafes and bars are closed. The measure came into force on 19 October. Takeaways are still possible. The sale of alcohol is prohibited after 20.00, and the consumption of alcohol in public is banned 24/7 throughout Belgium.

A team of 40 inspectors from the federal health ministry will carry out spot checks on shops, takeaways, hairdressers and beauty salons from next week to check that all the relevant coronavirus rules are being followed. The inspectors have the same powers as police to issue fines.

The Brussels government has approved a further €74 million in financial support for cafes, restaurants, hotels, culture, tourism and nightclubs. The bonus will be based on the number of full-time employees in each business and the percentage drop in turnover from April to December, compared with the same period in 2019. Payouts will range from €5,000 to €36,000 for restaurants, up to €50,000 for hotels and up to €100,000 for nightclubs, which have now remained closed for 10 months.

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."

Belgian performing rights society Sabam is still sending bills to cafes and restaurants to pay their annual fee for the right to play music in their venues - even though they are closed. The bill amounts to €700 per year. A spokesman for the Brussels Horeca federation said: "I am not against Sabam, but I am against racketeering. When a restaurant doesn't sell a stoemp-and-sausages, the customers don't pay for it." Sabam said it waived its charges for the month of March 2020, but added: "The hotel and catering sectors have received compensation from the federal authorities, while the authors of music have received nothing."

Can you order a takeaway from a restaurant and eat it standing up on the terrace? No, says Olivier Schmitz, governor of Luxembourg province: "There is no question of consuming on site, whether in the establishment or in front of it." Fines for a restaurant allowing people to eat standing up on the terrace start at €750, increasing to €4,000 for a repeat offence. A photo circulated on social media this week appearing to show diners gathered around stand-up tables on a restaurant terrace in Durbuy. "It's a little misleading," the manager said. "These people are just waiting for their order to be ready, before leaving."

The Horeca Brussels federation has called on the regional government to provide more financial support, saying the sector is being "left to die slowly". The federation said: "80% of hotels are closed, tourists have deserted the capital, our restaurateurs have seen turnover fall by 80%, event caterers 90%." The group says 3,000 jobs have been lost in 2020 - and another 10,000 could follow this year. The Brussels government has given €20 million in support to the hotel, restaurant and cafe sector so far - about €7,000 per venue - which Horeca Brussels describes as "a microdroplet in a sea of debt and charges".

A Belgian chef has created a special Christmas menu designed for Covid-19 sufferers whose senses of smell and taste have been impaired. Marcelo Ballardin, head chef at Oak in Ghent, joined forces with a specialist in taste disorders to come up with the menu, which uses ingredients such as red peppers and croutons that can help stimulate the cells in people who have lost taste and smell.

The Brussels region will pay a €3,000 grant to all cafes and restaurants required to close for the next month due to the latest coronavirus measures announced by the federal government. The region hopes to make the payments by the end of November. Nightclubs, travel agencies and events companies in Brussels are due to receive a one-off €9,000 grant at the end of October.

Belgium's Council of State has rejected an urgent legal appeal by the hospitality and catering industry against the closure of cafes and restaurants.

Brewing giant AB Inbev will continue to charge rent to its pub tenants, unlike during the first coronavirus shutdown in the spring. A spokeswoman said the firm would look at debt repayment plans to allow tenants to spread out their rent payments. Draught beer that has gone off during the shutdown will be replaced free of charge when cafes are allowed to reopen.

Shopping

Belgium allowed non-essential stores, museums and swimming pools to reopen from Tuesday 1 December. The reopening comes in time for the busy Christmas shopping season, with strict limits of one customer per 10m² of retail space. The smallest stores, measuring less than 20m², can accept no more than two customers at any time. Large stores must have a security guard at the entrance, counting people in and out.

Belgian MPs have unanimously approved extending the January sales by two weeks - until 15 February. The draft bill was put forward by members of the MR party, after lobbying from retail federations who have found business to be sluggish since the sales began on 4 January. Many stores still have large amounts of stock to clear.

From 14-31 December, shops in the Brussels region are allowed to stay open an hour longer in the evening, until 21.00. Each shop is free to decide whether to apply the later closing time or not. The measure aims to spread out the flow of customers and avoid overcrowding. The Brussels region has also extended the ban on tenant evictions until 15 January.

Stores on Rue Neuve have returned to about 75% of their ordinary pre-Christmas turnover, with some stores reporting close to 100%, according to a traders' association.

Shopping must still be done alone, unless accompanying a vulnerable person or children, with a maximum 30 minutes per store. Transactions that require longer than 30 minutes, such as ordering a new kitchen, must be done by appointment.

A new website lets the public see how busy Brussels' Rue Neuve is before making a shopping trip. A colour-coded barometer, broken down by hour, shows the busiest and quietest times to head to the shops. See www.rueneuvebruxelles.be

As the Netherlands closes its non-essential shops, Bruges and Knokke-Heist want to limit the number of people visiting their municipalities for shopping. Police and stewards will be present on shopping streets to limit crowding. Bruges mayor Dirk De Fauw said: "The Dutch will want to do their Christmas shopping. As we are not far from the border, we mustbe prepared for an influx of people from the Netherlands. We will have to be vigilant." A Knokke-Heist spokesman added: "We have a good network of cameras to monitor everything. We cannot close the borders or carry out border checks. So we mainly focus on crowd control."

Abercrombie & Fitch is quitting Brussels after nine years, in a move partly blamed on the coronavirus crisis and a lack of tourists. The fashion brand's flagship store on Boulevard de Waterloo will close in early 2021. It's the third big brand-name store on the street to close, after the BMW Brand Store and the luxury lingerie store La Perla. Abercrombie closed its Paris store on the Champs-Elysées last month.

Going shopping with someone else is possible "in very exceptional circumstances", the FAQ section on the Info-Coronavirus website explains. These include "the purchase of bulky goods for which an in-depth discussion is necessary due to the impact on the household". Buying a wedding dress can also be done with someone accompanying you, by appointment only.

All shops in the Brussels region must close by 20.00 - except takeaways which can stay open until 22.00. The requirement to go shopping alone has been reintroduced, unless accompanying a child or a vulnerable person in need of assistance. Shops are required to limit access to one customer per 10m² of retail space.

Trade unions representing retail workers have called on supermarkets to make the use of shopping trolleys compulsory again - to help customers keep a safe distance from each other. The unions also want stores to disinfect each trolley after use, since "it is clear that customers no longer systematically do so".

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%.

Mode Unie, the federation representing independent fashion stores, is calling for the winter sales to be postponed until February, to give shops longer to sell their current stocks at full price. The sales are currently scheduled to begin on 2 January.

Lockdown has forced many Flemish shops to start selling online, but few of them see a future in e-commerce, according to a study from Antwerp University. Instead, local retailers consider web shops a temporary measure to get them through the crisis. According to the university’s survey, around 50% of retailers who did not already have an online shop opened one during the first lockdown. On average, this allowed them to keep 20% of their turnover. It helped that the public started shopping online in much larger numbers, both for food and other items. And many people chose to shop locally, rather than turning to big international platforms such as Coolblue, Bol.com and Amazon. Yet many Flemish shops that went online during lockdown appear to have made it up as they went along. For example, only a quarter of those surveyed got professional help when setting up their web shops.

The City of Brussels is set to launch a "consumer voucher" scheme to help boost local shops. The vouchers will be sold in increments of €25 - but their value will be 20% higher, so they can be used to pay for €30 of shopping, with the city paying the difference to the retailer. Traders interested in taking part will be able to register at www.commercelocal.brussels. Exact details of how to buy your vouchers will come in a communication campaign shortly.

The National Labour Council has asked the federal government to extend the validity of meal vouchers, ecocheques and other extra-legal benefits. It wants meal vouchers expiring between November 2020 and March 2021 to be extended by six months. Sports and culture vouchers that expired on 30 September should have their validity extended by a year.

About 10 pharmacies in Belgium per week are closing due to lack of staff. About 10% of pharmacies have at least one member of staff who has tested positive for Covid-19, and 30% have at least one member of staff in quarantine. "Pharmacies are small businesses with few employees," said a spokesman for the Union of Pharmacists. "As soon as the pharmacist is absent, the structure is forced to close. There are not enough pharmacists on the market to meet demand."

A shopkeeper who refused to pay rent during the first coronavirus shutdown has won their case in court. Lawyers for the manager of a Di store in Etterbeek successfully argued that because the premises rented out by the landlord could no longer be visited by the public, "the tenant was released from his obligation to pay".

With Black Friday, Christmas and the closure of non-essential stores, Bpost staff are expecting a marathon few weeks. The firm is currently processing half a million parcels per day and has hired 2,500 seasonal workers. It's also a busy time for Point Poste relay points - typically located within convenience stores and newsagents - some of which are now making more revenue from Bpost duties than their day-to-day retail activities.

Bpost has launched a limited-edition postage stamp to raise funds for the King Baudouin Foundation's solidarity fund for healthcare providers. Thirty cents from each sale will be donated to initiatives set up by hospitals and care homes.

Belgium's Council of State has rejected an urgent request from the real estate industry for estate agents to be allowed to continue showing people around homes. The judgment says the estate agents and their professional union had not provided  "concrete and verifiable elements indicating that the financial and competitive damage invoked has consequences of such gravity for the survival of the company or the union that a suspension of extreme urgency is necessary".

With non-essential stores now open again, sales of hairdressing equipment have gone through the roof. MediaMarkt says sales of clippers, razors, hair dryers and straighteners are up 40% as people attempt DIY haircuts while they wait for salons to reopen in mid-January (perhaps).

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.

Hairdressers, beauticians and tattooists can now apply for the Brussels region's €1,500 grant for shut-down businesses requiring close personal contact. Applications can be made until 18 February at www.primecovid.brussels

Meanwhile, about a hundred hairdressers demonstrated in Charleroi, calling for the right to resume business. "I am sad for our customers who can no longer have their hair done and for whom we are sometimes their confidant," one of the participants said. "My salon is closed but 40% of my fixed costs still have to be paid. It is carnage for many of us."

A federation representing hairdressers is concerned that the stricter rules accompanying the sector's (potential) reopening in mid-February are too onerous. If salons are allowed to resume trading, they must respect a long list of measures including compulsory FFP2 masks and a 10-minute ventilation gap between each appointment. Mario Blokken, president of the Belgian Beauty Federation said: "These additional measures will only increase costs for a sector already on the verge of suffocating. What if hairdressers make all these investments and then are ultimately not allowed to resume business on 13 February?"

An investigation by RTBF has found no shortage of hairdressers offering home visits on social media, in clear breach of the coronavirus restrictions. One of them who answered the phone said: "It's not legal what we're doing. But when you look in the street and see well-coiffed and clean-shaven people, it's no accident." The Federation of Hairdressers of Belgium says that while it condemns home visits, it understands why some hairdressers have had to offer them. In Brussels, the compensation scheme for businesses forced to close in November has yet to be paid out. But a spokesman said: "It is this type of behaviour that will delay the official reopening of all those who play by the rules." Hairdressers who do home haircuts risk a €750 fine and a ban from receiving financial aid.

There is broad political backing for hairdressers to be allowed to reopen, according to Open VLD party president Egbert Lachaert. "I hope this will be the case in January," he said in a TV interview this weekend. "But it will depend on the numbers. We agree that if the numbers are stable or going down, that's the first thing to do. Hairdressers come first."

Trade unions representing hairdressers and beauticians met Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo to campaign for the right to reopen. The unions say that after the first wave, hairdressers put in place ample measures to ensure customers' safety - at a cost averaging €1,500 per salon - including masks, gloves and a require to book in advance, with limits on customer numbers.

Hairdressers are coming under growing pressure from members of the public to flout the coronavirus rules and provide haircuts at home, according to Patrick Dumont, representative of the Federation of Belgian Hairdressers. "My wife owns a group of salons and since 31 October we've had 400 phone calls asking for hairdressing services at home," he said. "This parallel economy is developing. When you have a clientele that has been loyal to you for 20 or 30 years, it is clear that there is a certain relationship that sets in." One hairdresser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "We do it because we are afraid of losing customers. There are a lot of hairdressers who are still working today. The competition is tougher than usual. Someone who told me that if I didn't go to her place, she was going to get her hair cut in France."

Schools

Virologist Erika Vlieghe, who chairs Belgium's coronavirus advisory panel, contacted the country's education ministers to voice her concern about the growing effect that different strains of coronavirus are having on children. Ministers from the French, Dutch and German-speaking communities met on Monday to discuss taking possible further measures. Nothing has been decided at this stage. "It was planned to continue monitoring but not to take new measures," a spokesperson said. "However, more meetings will be organised in the coming days."

An expert report commissioned by the Flemish education minister has recommended that both half-term holidays during the academic year be extended to two weeks, with a shorter summer holiday to compensate, to ensure longer breaks in the virus transmission chain. The Toussaint break has already been extended from nine to 12 days. The Carnival holidays in February could follow. Putting a two-week break at regular intervals through the year would ensure "schools remain open as much as possible during the rest of the year", the experts say.

Primary school pupils who sit in close proximity of a classmate who tests positive for coronavirus, in the classroom or the canteen, will be considered high-risk contacts from this week and required to quarantine and take a coronavirus test. Vandenbroucke acknowledged this weekend that schools "can be a source of contamination", adding that, faced with new strains of the virus which appear to affect children more, "we must rethink the role of children in transmission".

Four out of five secondary teachers say it is impossible to comply with all of the coronavirus measures in schools, according to a survey by the UMons teacher training school. Respondents said class sizes were too large and premises too cramped to follow the rules to the letter.

Flemish education authorities have discussed the possibility of extending the Carnival half-term holidays from one week to two. The Wallonia-Brussels Federation says it has no plans for the moment to do the same, although the situation will be assessed in mid-January. Schools reopened this Monday under "code red".

A major research project has begun into how Covid-19 is spread in primary schools. The joint project involves three universities - UCLouvain, ULiège and ULB - plus the childcare organisation ONE and public health institute Sciensano, with the support of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. The study is based on anonymised samples from 2,400 pupils and 200 teaching staff in 72 different classes.

Belgium's Francophone education authorities have decided not to keep the February half-term holiday at one week, instead of extending it to two as was the case in November. "At this stage, there is nothing to indicate that the health situation will require an extension of the carnival break," said education minister Caroline Désir. French-speaking schools will remain in "code red" when pupils return from the Christmas holidays, until 15 January at the earliest.

Belgium's French-speaking schools have seen a sharp rise in unjustified pupil absences in November, up 50% compared to the same time last year. Some 12,000 students had at least one day off school without valid reason. While authorities were lenient during the first coronavirus wave, the obligation to send children to school is being strictly applied again since September. Children are allowed nine unjustified half-days off school per academic year. Beyond 20 half-days, sanctions are possible including legal action and withdrawal of child benefits.

The return to school is under "code red". This means pupils from the third year of secondary school upwards will only be present 50% of the time, with distance learning for the rest of the time. Code red is expected to stay in place at least until 18 December, the last day before the Christmas holidays.

Four out of 10 schoolchildren in Belgium feel uncomfortable at school due to the coronavirus risk. The survey of 1,700 families found seven out of 10 secondary school pupils found wearing a mask all day unpleasant. Half of parents answering the survey was in favour of closing secondary schools. Another third preferred a mix of distance and face-to-face learning.

The Wallonia-Brussels Federation has freed up €10 million in emergency funding to buy 20,000 laptops for students who do not have access to a computer at home. Since Wednesday, secondary school classes are being given remotely. Schools have been encouraged to make the necessary purchases now - and then claim the money back from the government, which will provide funding for enough computers for 5% of students per school, at a rate of €500 per computer.

Schoolchildren at risk of falling behind in the latest lockdown because they cannot take part in lessons at home will receive new laptops from the government of Flanders. Education minister Ben Weyts announced on Monday that 15,000 new laptops would be provided to the most at-risk pupils, with 4,000 available as early as this week. The government will spend some €10 million on the new laptops, which will become the property of schools. It will be for schools to decide who receives the new equipment, and for how long. The commitment comes on top of the 12,000 second-hand laptops that the government made available during the last school year. Meanwhile, internet providers Telenet and Proximus will continue to provide free internet connections for pupils who are not connected at home, at least until the end of this school year. Families can request this internet access through the schools.

One in 25 children are living in a difficult, or potentially dangerous, family situation, which risks being exacerbated by the latest coronavirus restrictions, SOS Villages d'Enfants has warned. "Children are spending more time within their family bubble. But what if this bubble is failing and does not offer them what they need?" asks director Hilde Boeykens. "After the lockdown in March, we received messages from many families sounding the alarm. These were generally families who were already experiencing difficulties before the stay-at-home period. Some parents found themselves out of work and problems surfaced even faster than usual due to the added stress caused by the crisis. This had many consequences for children."

Brussels' Common Community Commission has unveiled a new campaign targeting young people in the city, reminding them of the importance of following the coronavirus rules. Using posters and Facebook videos, the campaign tells under-25s that they are part of a community of "Covid breakers" and that they have the power to change the current situation by wearing a mask, keeping their distance and limiting their social contacts.

Universities

Universities - which all recently entered "code red", scrapping in-person lectures - must maintain 100% distance learning until at least 13 December.

Flemish education minister Ben Weyts hopes to see students back on campus and in lecture halls after the Easter holidays. He is also pushing for the rules on social contacts to be adapted specifically for students in accommodation. "The current measures are based on a traditional household," he said. "Little account has been taken of students in halls of residence or teenagers in boarding schools."

Leuven university has set up its own contact-tracing call centre, to speed up reaching students who have been in contact with a person testing positive for coronavirus. A third of Leuven's residents are students and the university is offering free coronavirus tests at a rate of 300 per day. Medical students are carrying out the tests and manning the call centre.

Policing

Brussels-Ixelles police have sanctioned 13,000 people for failing to respect the coronavirus restrictions since March, new figures reveal. Some 9,891 people received judicidal fines, while another 3,346 were issued with municipal administrative fines (SACs), of which about 700 have since been annulled and only 1,000 have been paid - either in full or as part of a staggered payment plan. Police in the city centre carry out about 20 Covid patrols, day and night, tasked with sanctioning people who fail to wear a mask, gather in groups of more than four people, break the curfew or hold "lockdown parties".

A court in Antwerp has handed down jail sentences of up to two months for 10 people involved in four "lockdown parties" recently. They also received fines of up to €1,200. Another 12 defendants were fined between €400 and €1,000 plus costs.

Police forces around Belgium say there is no shortage of people ready to denounce their neighbours for breaching coronavirus rules. "Since March, it has not stopped," said a spokesman for Charleroi police zone. "People denounce anything and everything. We even receive anonymous letters made with letters cut out from newspapers and pasted on a sheet of paper." A Brussels-Capital/Ixelles police spokesman confirms: "With the Covid, people are under pressure. There are more emotional reactions. When there is noise at night, they call the police, even in normal times. But in times of pandemic, people expect more from the police."

The latest set of coronavirus restrictions will add an extra strain on local police, possible to the detriment of other policing duties, according to Nico Paelinck, president of the Permanent Commission of Local Police. Meanwhile, ticket inspectors on buses and trains will soon be given the power to issue coronavirus fines to passengers who do not wear a mask, interior minister Annelies Verlinden told VRT.

Foreign travel

Belgium has banned non-essential foreign travel - to and from the country - until 1 March, in an attempt to stop the spread of new, more contagious, strains of coronavirus. Read more here...

Air Belgium has suspended all of its flights from Charleroi to Guadeloupe and Martinique from 30 January to 1 March, following the government's decision to ban non-essential travel abroad. Passengers can reschedule for a later date or request a refund.

From 25 December, non-residents who enter Belgium will be required to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test less than 48 hours old. Border controls will be reinforced, with travellers required to show a QR code proving they have completed their Passenger Locator Form. Anyone returning from a red zone should quarantine for seven days and take a coronavirus test. Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said: "It is a very bad idea to travel at the moment." 

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.

Travel agents in Belgium are dealing with a deluge of cancellation requests, as customers realise that their travel plans for half-term, Easter and possibly the summer might not be able to go ahead as planned. One travel agent told RTL: "I have to reimburse the customers and pay back my commission. I'm doing double the work, for nothing." The leisure travel sector in Belgium saw an 88% drop in turnover last year.

Belgian federal police carried out 35,000 border checks in the first week of January and issued 98 fines for non-compliance with the coronavirus restrictions. Police checked whether people arriving in Belgium had correctly completed the Passenger Locator Form and whether non-residents had proof of a negative coronavirus test.

The Brussels region will deploy 40 inspectors to visit people at home who have returned from a red zone, to ensure they are complying with the obligation to quarantine. Brussels minister-president Rudi Vervoort said: "We are asking everyone to take responsibility. It is a collective effort. The aim is not to impose fines, but to encourage respect for the rules." Another 250 people in the coronavirus contact-tracing call centre will also be making phone calls to people who should be in quarantine. Some 160,000 people filled out passenger locator forms before returning to Belgium from Christmas holidays - but only 37% of them took the day-one coronavirus test, new figures reveal.

Foreign borders remain open, but travel is strongly discouraged. Remote working remains compulsory unless it is impossible to do so. Belgium will reinforce its border checks, to ensure people entering Belgium have filled out the Passenger Locator Form and will respect the necessary quarantine period if required.

Belgium has announced a new requirement for anyone entering the country from a red zone to quarantine and take two coronavirus tests, seven days apart, from this Thursday (31 December). Read more details here...

Brussels Airlines will cancel 900 European flights in February and March because the demand for travel is currently too low. "The number of passengers currently reserved on these flights does not allow them to be used economically or in an environmentally friendly way," the airline said.

Belgian health minister Frank Vandenbroucke has asked for expert advice in the coming days on how best to manage the return from the Christmas holidays. Belgians returning home after the Carnival holidays in March were a major factor in the rapid spread of coronavirus and there are concerns of a similar rise in early January - while the current figures are in decline, suggesting that people's efforts are paying off. The government did not ban foreign travel, but strongly advised against it. Many people chose not to follow the guidance - so it is conceivable that they might also choose not to follow the rules on quarantining on return. A source told RTBF that many of the experts who have been canvassed believe that not enough is being done to check people returning to Belgium. They advocate stricter rules, such as a mandatory negative coronavirus test result for Belgian residents - not just visitors. Some experts have also called for hotels to be requisitioned to accommodate travellers who do not have the possibility to self-isolate at home. Belgium has confirmed that it will reinforce its border checks.

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.

The mayor of Etterbeek, Vincent De Wolf, says it is unacceptable that there is no legal framework for local police to enforce quarantine rules and check up on residents who should be staying at home. Etterbeek is the Brussels municipality with the highest coronavirus figures in the past fortnight - 303 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants - which De Wolf attributes to "the large number of expats in the municipality". He wants local police to be given a list of people who should be quarantining. "Taking measures next week will probably no longer make sense," he added.

There were reports on social media of long queues on arrivals at Brussels Airport on the Sunday evening before the return to work and school in January, as border guards were overwhelmed by the number of passengers. Virologist Marc Van Ranst said: "Viruses love a lot of people in an indoor space. This is one of the reasons why we advise against travelling abroad. To the airport and police: you know approximately how many people are arriving at any given time. This should be easier to organise."

Infectious disease specialist Erika Vlieghe, who chairs Belgium's coronavirus advisory panel Gems, says anyone returning to Belgium from overseas should be required to show proof of a negative coronavirus test result. "In almost all European countries the risk of infection is higher than in our country," she said. "The new, possibly more contagious British variant is also a cause for concern. So now is not the right time to travel abroad, and I'm not just talking about the UK." Vlieghe added: "From an epidemiological point of view, I do not see any difference between a Belgian non-resident and a Belgian resident who has gone abroad."

ULB public health expert Yves Coppieters said: "Since the start of the epidemic, border controls have been insufficient in Belgium. There should be rapid tests available at the borders to test people who do not have a certificate and to isolate those who are positive in particular places. From an organisational and logistical point of view, it is very complicated." In December, some 140,000 travellers arrived in Belgium from a red zone and filled out a passenger locator form. Of these, 29% were considered to have shown risky behaviour during their trip (staying in groups, not keeping distances etc) and were told to quarantine.


"Belgium and the Netherlands are good neighbours, and today, being good neighbours means that we don't visit each other," said prime minister Alexander De Croo in a TV interview this week. "If we see that there are too many people coming to Belgium, and that it becomes a dangerous situation, it is clear that we will take measures such as roadside checks." With Belgium's coronavirus committee due to meet on Friday, De Croo said it was clear that the discussions would not be about easing the measures. "We remain in a situation which is rather delicate. We will analyse the figures and we will make a decision based on them."

Of the 110,000 people who entered Belgium from a red zone in November, only 154 took a coronavirus test, according to leaked stats from Sciensano seen by Het Laatste Nieuws. This is due to Belgium limiting coronavirus tests at the time to symptomatic people. Of the 154 tests that were carried out, 12 came back positive.

Belgium is set to reintroduce the requirement to quarantine for passengers returning to the country from overseas travel in a "red zone". A 10-day quarantine will be required, and a coronavirus test on the seventh day, from 18 December, said Karine Moykens, president of the interfederal testing and tracing committee. Since mid-October, people returning from a red zone have not been automatically required to quarantine and be tested - only on a case-by-case basis, based on the information provided in the Passenger Locator Form. Moykens said travellers would receive a phone call if they did not make an appointment for a coronavirus test. Almost all of Europe is coloured red on the foreign ministry's travel advice map. Only Ireland, Iceland, most of Norway and the Canary Islands and some parts of the UK are orange. All travel abroad is strongly discouraged.

It's time to start looking forward to summer 2021. "We could start vaccinations in the spring," said interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem during Monday's coronavirus press conference. "The way things currently look, if nothing changes to the timeframe for the coronavirus vaccine, and with more favourable weather conditions, we should start to find a life similar to what we had before."

Ryanair is planning to make more redundancies in Belgium than previously announced. The figure has risen from 80 in July, and 106 last month, to a new total of 200, staff and unions learned during a conference call on Monday. "Ryanair has once again shown its contempt for Belgian and European restructuring regulations," the unions say.

Brussels Airport Company is working on a cost-savings plan for the year ahead, after forecasting a net loss of €200 million for 2020. The aviation sector has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic since March. In October, Brussels Airport had only 13% of its regular passenger numbers. "But many of our fixed costs, such as firefighters, still have to be paid," an airport spokeswoman said. The airport has already cancelled the contracts of about 100 external consultants, and placed some other staff on temporary unemployment. Discussions with unions are ongoing. Redundancies have not been ruled out. The airport has 900 full-time equivalent staff.

The independent ombudsman for Brussels Airport, Philippe Touwaide, has written to airport authorities to condemn the "non-compliance of health rules" that led to large crowds of returning passengers gathering in the terminal on Sunday evening. "We were promised that the repeated incidents of November would have been brought under control by better coordination, which obviously does not seem to be the case," he wrote. "The situation is not acceptable."

Travel agency Neckermann will close all 59 of its branches "until Belgians can travel again" - and has applied for bankruptcy protection for three months. The tour operator will use the period to "find financial support and renegotiate with its creditors the debts caused by the coronavirus crisis". The group hopes doing so will allow it to protect the jobs of its 180 employees. Holiday reservations will still be possible online.

The mediator for Brussels Airport has written to federal authorities to warn of crowd control issues at the Zaventem terminal and "non-compliance with health measures". Philippe Touwaide said there had been "regrettable incidents" over the past three weekends, including "chaotic Covid testing, denied boarding, delays in test results, crowds at departures, absence of masks and social distancing". He added: "We ask you to take radical measures so that all the health rules are strictly observed."

Private events

In the Brussels region, wedding ceremonies are limited to the couple and their witnesses. Funerals are limited to 15 people.

Elsewhere, up to 200 people can attend a wedding ceremony or funeral, provided safe distancing is maintained. Receptions are only allowed after a funeral, for a maximum 40 people.

The Brussels region has banned street prostitution. A ministerial decree states that the ban was implemented because "Covid-19 can be transmitted by contact, and the activity of prostitution by its very nature requires close and repeated physical contact with different people, where respect of barrier gestures is undermined. Such an activity is a great risk in the context of a pandemic." The City of Brussels had already introduced a prostitution ban in September, but it was thrown out by the Council of State on the grounds that it was not something that a local authority could decide.

Transport

Public transport use in Brussels is gradually declining, falling below the 60% capacity mark last week, according to the latest Stib figures. Only 4% of vehicles were more than half-full. 68% of vehicles were less than a quarter full. Flemish public transport operator De Lijn will carry out spot-checks from 12 November to ensure passengers are wearing a mask. Inspectors will hand out €250 to those not complying. If necessary, police will be called in for extra support.

More than 200 Stib drivers are taking the Brussels public transport operator to court to have their right to withdraw from work recognised. In early May, about 1,300 Stib staff refused to work, considering their health to be in danger, after Stib relaxed the rules on social distancing inside vehicles. A Stib spokeswoman said: "We believe that the work stoppage from 11-17 May cannot be justified by a serious and imminent danger. There is therefore no reason why Stib should pay for these days that were not worked."

The Stib will launch what's informally being called a "corona ticket" on 1 February - a more flexible alternative to a season ticket, for workers who no longer have to travel to the office every day. The 100-journey ticket will cost €135 and is valid for 90 days. It's 10% cheaper than three monthly season tickets, but only 3% cheaper than a 10-journey ticket, which is valid for three years and can also be used on De Lijn, TEC and SNCB services within Brussels.

After a sharp decline in movements during the November holidays, Belgians are starting to travel more, according to mobility data analysed by the federal crisis centre, based on mobile phone GPS records, TomTom, Google and Apple. This is explained by a return to school - and work, for some of us - but interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem said: "This should not continue to increase since we insist on the importance of maintaining a maximum of remote work."

Austrian railway company ÖBB is stopping its night-train service from Brussels to Vienna for at least a month from 5 November, due to the worsening coronavirus situation in Europe.

Walloon public transport operator TEC has hired 100 private coaches to follow its own buses on the busiest lines, picking up extra passengers when the bus is too busy. The measure is in place until the end of the year, and after an evaluation it could be extended to June.

Coach company FlixBus is again limiting its services due to the new coronavirus restrictions. A "very limited" number of buses will continue linking Belgium with the Netherlands and UK.

Belgian ministers have approved a financial rescue package for the nation's railways. SNCB will receive €264 million in emergency funding, with a further €46.9 million for railtrack operator Infrabel. Mobility minister Georges Gilkinet said: "It is necessary, following the Covid-19 pandemic, to avoid a deterioration in the financial situation of SNCB and Infrabel - which would call into question their ability to fulfil their public service missions."

The SNCB is forecasting that passenger numbers will not return to normal until "a few years" from now. Passenger numbers fell to 10% of normal levels during the first coronavirus shutdown. The best figure achieved since has been 68% in October. The Belgian rail operator is expected to report a €400 million loss in 2020, as it maintained a relatively normal level of service during the coronavirus shutdowns to ensure people in essential jobs could still travel.

Since wearing a mask became compulsory on public transport in May, the SNCB's rail safety division Securail has handed out more than 3,000 fines to passengers who flout the rules. Last week, train occupancy was 47% of the level registered in the same period in 2019, as commuters stay at home and many people's Christmas travel plans are cancelled.

The mayor of Ostend, Bart Tommelein, wants the SNCB to stop allowing the free Hello Belgium rail pass to be used, until Belgium's coronavirus restrictions are eased again. Up to 5,000 daytrippers visited Ostend on Wednesday, a public holiday - many of them taking advantage of the SNCB's free 12-journey rail pass. "The crowd was too large," Tommelein said. "It's not a good idea at this time to have so many people in one place. I ask people not to all come to Ostend at the same time and to avoid crowded places."

The governor of West Flanders wants the SNCB's free Hello Belgium rail pass to not be allowed during the Christmas and New Year holidays. Carol Decaluwé is concerned that the 12-journey pass will encourage a rush to the Flemish coast and Bruges over the festive season. "There are already too many people in some places. If we add the reopening of museums and non-essential shops, I fear there will be more," he said.

The Belgian taxi federation Febet is seeking financial support from the government after it imposed a night-time curfew from midnight to 5.00. The federation has supplied drivers with a waiver document allowing them to continue driving during the curfew hours. Febet chairman Khalid Ed-Denguir said that if the federal minister for the self-employed, David Clarnival, did not respond to the request for compensation, taxi drivers would consider a protest action on 16 November. "Our turnover has dropped by 70-80%," he said. "Yet we have been completely overlooked."

Self-employed drivers working for Taxis Verts, who refused to pay their monthly fee to the operator during the coronavirus shutdown, have reached an agreement with management. The deal gives drivers the freedom to suspend their activities at any given moment. Fees cease to be collected from the start of the following month - and drivers can choose to resume work at the start of any subsequent month. Taxi drivers have seen revenues plunge by 70% since the coronavirus crisis began.

Belgium's Christmas anti-drink-drive campaign, Bob, has launched. Organisers say that even though pubs are closed and a curfew is in place, the campaign is just as necessary this year as any other time. "Even though travel is restricted, the drinking and driving problem does not go away, and certainly not during the holidays," a spokesperson said.

Driving lessons and exams have been suspended. Test centres will contact candidates to arrange alternative dates. Provisional driving licenses in Belgium will be extended until 30 September 2021, to give candidates enough time to finish their lessons and take the exam. "It will take time before everything returns to normal," said mobility minister Georges Gilkinet. "I hope that this gesture will be a relief for those learning to drive."

Driving schools have partially resumed lessons, but only for students studying for a motorbike, truck or bus licence. Lessons and exams for the regular "B" car licence remain suspended. Nearly 60,000 students are waiting to take their driving test. The Federation of Driving Schools estimates that it will take at least a year for the exam backlog to be cleared.

An indirect consequence of the coronavirus crisis: better drivers? Brussels Mobility has reported that the pass rate for driving exams has improved from 32% to 36% this year. Fewer candidates have taken the test in 2020 (52,000 compared with 92,000 last year). And those who sat the test have had longer to practice, as test centres were closed in the spring.

Belgium's four ministers in charge of road safety (three regional, one federal) have sent a letter to prime minister Alexander De Croo asking for clarity on whether driving schools and examination centres can resume their work. "We are still awaiting answers from the federal government to a series of questions concerning driving lessons and tests," said Walloon minister Valérie De Bue. "This is unacceptable."

Retirement homes

Care homes in Brussels have started toughening their rules again on family visits, which are now limited to a maximum of two people per fortnight. On-site restaurants are off-limits for visitors and care homes can no longer organise excursions. In Wallonia, the limit is one visitor per fortnight.

Several retirement homes in Wallonia have reported that they do not have enough coronavirus vaccines to go around - after a higher-than-expected number of staff agreed to have the jab. One care home director said: "Out of about 70 staff, we only have two who do not want an injection." Authorities said in an email that residents had priority over staff and that they were "very pleasantly surprised by this enthusiasm [for the vaccine]."

Social care organisation Iriscare has received applciations from 800 volunteers to lend a hand in the region's care homes. The first few dozen have already been placed within nursing homes. Hospitals in the region have also been invited to request volunteer support.

Staff at 600 nursing homes in Wallonia will take a saliva test for coronavirus every 10 days, under a new fast-testing system implemented by ULiège university

The coronavirus death toll from Saint-Nicolas's visit to a care home in Mol, Antwerp province, has risen to 23. The majority of the retirement home's 125 residents were infected after a festive visit by the Saint, who discovered a few days later that he had Covid-19. Relatives of some of the care home residents in Mol, Antwerp province, who died from coronavirus after a visit by Saint-Nicolas, are planning legal action against the Flemish Agency for Care and Health for allowing the event to take place.

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.

The number of residents at a care home in Mol, Antwerp province, who have died following a visit by a Covid-19 positive Saint-Nicholas has risen to 33. Most residents at the Hemelrijck nursing home are no longer showing symptoms. Residents and staff are due to be vaccinated shortly.

Vulnerable groups

About 85 people demonstrated outside the Finance Tower in Brussels to call for the federal government to give a proper legal status to undocumented migrants. "We spent the first wave in difficult conditions and we will spend the second wave the same way, without any rights or social protection," a spokesman for the protest action said. "Among us, there are graduates, nurses, technicians... They could provide important support to hospitals, which are understaffed with the epidemic."

Sex workers' union Utsopi has set up a solidarity fund to support prostitutes, who have been ordered to stop work. "Utsopi has received more requests for help in recent weeks than throughout the three months of the first stay-at-home period," said the organisation. "Sex workers can no longer pay their rent, pay their medical bills and have to resort to food handouts to feed themselves." Citizens can make a donation, which will be used to purchase food, pay for basic medical care and emergency accommodation for workers evicted from their homes.

Hotels

With non-essential foreign travel banned, the February half-term will bring a boost for domestic tourism. Ardennes-Etape, which manages 1,200 holiday homes in the Ardennes, says it is almost fully booked. The week before half-term is also nearly sold out, when schools in Flanders switch to distance learning.

The Brussels government has agreed a financial aid package for the region's hotels, with grants of up to €200,000 per hotel and €800,000 maximum per company. Tourism normally generates €1.2 billion a year for the Brussels economy. The region's smallest hotels, with 18 rooms or less, will receive a flat rate €20,000. This increases by €1,100 per extra room, up to the limit.

2020 was a terrible year for hotels in Brussels, with turnover down 90%, according to the Brussels Hotel Association, which has called on the federal and regional governments to extend the coronavirus support measures for the sector, including temporary unemployment, beyond March.

Hotels in Brussels - the ones that are open - have been exonerated from paying the €4 per customer per night city tax until 30 June. The measure applied initially to the first half of 2020, and was then extended to the second half of the year, and now the first six months of 2021.

Pairi Daiza animal park is closing its hotels with immediate effect, cancelling visitors' Christmas holiday plans, after Belgium's national crisis centre ruled that hotel guests were not allowed to visit the animal park. Local authorities had allowed Pairi Daiza's hotels to remain open, even though animal parks are closed to the general public. Guests with a booking between 15 December and 3 January will be invited to reschedule. Park founder Eric Domb said: "This closure leaves a bitter taste. Our teams had worked hard to decorate the hotels and gardens for Christmas and prepare to receive guests in the safest conditions. This closure is incomprehensible." The park has calculated that its surface area, divided by the number of guests staying in the hotel, equates to one person per 120m² - significantly more space than, say, on Rue Neuve, the Grand Place or the seafront.

The coronavirus crisis isn't just affecting humans' wellbeing - but our pets too. "Many dogs born in 2020 have been poorly socialised and poorly educated," one dog trainer in Namur told RTBF. "They are more suspicious of others. We call them 'covid dogs'." What are the signs of a covid dog? Excessive barking at other dogs and humans - a sign of stress or fear. Quieter streets and fewer pedestrians during the stay-at-home period means many dogs are not accustomed to everyday noises and other stimuli. "These are dogs that can develop problematic behaviours at home: biting, over-excitement, aggressiveness or even hyper-attachment problems," another trainer said. "With the rule of four people meeting outdoors, we can only accept three dogs and their owners at a time. Our schedule is fully booked."

Prisons

Across all Belgian prisons, 174 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus since 13 March - of whom 86 are currently infected. Lantin prison has set aside a special wing for asymptomatic prisoners who test positive. All new detainees are placed in preventive quarantine and are tested before mixing with other inmates. When an inmate or a member of staff tests positive for Covid-19, an internal system of contact tracing is activated in the prisons. High-risk contacts are then placed in quarantine pending their test results.

To alleviate the pressure on prisons during the coronavirus crisis, 135 inmates were released early during the second wave. In the first wave, 221 detainees were granted early release - up to six months earlier than planned - of whom 10 have gone on to reoffend and be reimprisoned.

Financial support

Homeowners who are experiencing financial difficulties due to the coronavirus crisis can request a mortgage payment holiday for a maximum three months. The measure, which was launched during the first wave, came to an end in October but has now been extended by the federal government. To benefit from the three-month suspension of repayments, you must apply to your bank before the end of March 2021 and prove that your income has substantially fallen due to the coronavirus crisis and that you have less than €25,000 in savings. This is a payment holiday - not a cancellation - so you will still be charged interest, but no extra fees can be levied by your bank.

Belgium's national employment office, Onem, has identified almost 5,000 cases of suspected benefit fraud relating to the coronavirus temporary unemployment scheme. In many of the cases, a worker continued to have a paid job while claiming benefits. Onem has launched 15,438 investigations into suspected fraud since the coronavirus crisis first hit in March. Applications for the scheme did not undergo as much scrutiny as would normally be the case, in order to speed up the first payments and avoid a backlog. "Ill-intentioned people can sometimes take advantage of this situation," said economy minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne.

About 30 properties in Brussels and Hainaut province were raided by police, and 20 people arrested, in a major police investigation into Covid-19-related fraud. Those arrested are suspected of creating bogus business entities and using fake identity documents to declare they employ personnel, in order to receive financial aid.

Anyone who has been on temporary unemployment due to coronavirus for at least 53 days since March will receive a €150 Christmas bonus, plus an additional €10 per day, economy minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne has announced. The payment will be automatic. Some 400,000 workers in Belgium have spent two months or more without a job this year.

The federal government is planning to extend a measure allowing people to apply for a payment holiday for consumer loans. The current measure is due to expire on 31 March. It follows similar extensions for mortgages and business loans.

A ministerial committee has approved 38 measures to ease the financial burden on businesses and the self-employed during the coronavirus crisis. They include the possibility of delaying tax payments, the extension of several tax breaks for businesses and the reopening of temporary unemployment due to force majeure for all companies. The "droit passerelle" monthly compensation package has been doubled for self-employed workers whose professional sector has been forced to close. Social charges payments can also be deferred, with the introduction of a debt repayment plan. The temporary posting of employees from shut-down businesses to jobs in the care sector will also be facilitated.

The boss of KBC bank, Johan Thijs, believes the Belgian state has been too generous in its support measures for businesses and the self-employed. He believes that some businesses earned more in government aid than they would have done if they had stayed open and trading. The bank boss pleads for linking aid to losses actually suffered. "I think we need to work on more measures instead of uniform collective measures," he told De Standaard.

The Brussels government has approved a further €85 million of aid for businesses affected by the coronavirus shutdown. This includes a grant of up to €5,000 for non-essential businesses that were forced to close in late October. Shops and restaurants which reinvented themselves for click-and-collect or takeaway will still benefit from the payout.

Brussels' secretary of state for housing, Nawal Ben Hamou, has submitted a proposal to ban tenant evictions until at least 13 December, "with the exception of evictions justified by a serious and imminent threat to public safety". She said: "Our objective is to minimize the possibilities of contamination and to protect the most precarious tenants by keeping them in their accommodation." The National Chamber of Bailiffs has asked its members to be "cautious, reasonable and accommodating". A spokesman said: "We do not want bailiffs to be vectors of the virus. When we carry out a eviction, there are a lot of people, police officers, movers. The risk is then too great."

Vaccines

At the current vaccination rate, it would take us until 2024 to have 70% of the adult population protected from the virus. KU Leuven microbiologist Emmanuel André tweeted on Monday: "Vaccination is an absolute priority to preserve the health of the population, prevent so many families from being trapped in poverty, regain a social life and allow a sustainable economic recovery. In Belgium, at the current rate, it will be in 2024."

Belgium is currently limiting the number of first doses of the coronavirus vaccine it is administering to 54,300 per week. This is based on current supply numbers from Pfizer and Moderna and is to ensure that those who have already received the first dose can receive the second jab within the correct timeframe. "When we have more guarantees and certainty that the next deliveries will arrived on schedule, we'll be able to increase the ceiling," a vaccination taskforce spokesperson said.

The first vaccinations against Covid-19 in Belgium took place on 28 December in retirement homes in Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, Mons and Puurs. Regional health ministers and the press will be present. The first Flemish person to be vaccinated will be 96-year-old Jos Hermans. The first Walloon will be 102-year-old Josepha Delmotte. The identity of the first Brussels recipient has not been made public.

Taxi companies in Antwerp will offer a special cut-price coronavirus vaccination fare - €10 return for anyone travelling to a vaccination centre and back. "We can bring less mobile or older people to and from the vaccination village at Spoor Oost at greatly reduced rates," a spokesman said. "There are also taxi companies in the suburbs that are willing to cooperate."

A new poll of 16,000 people by UCLouvain, ULB and UGent universities has found that 77% of people in Belgium are keen to get vaccinated against coronavirus - up from 56% before Christmas. Some 13% were hesitant, while 10% were totally against the idea.

Belgium is facing a shortage of 1ml syringes in February and March, health minister Frank Vandenbroucke has warned. The shortage will arise because it was recently discovered that a vial of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine can be used to give six doses instead of five. Stocking up on syringes is essential if the sixth dose is to be put to good use, instead of going to waste. "This situation will not prevent vaccination but it could prevent us from using six doses instead of five," he said. A delivery of 3.6 million syringes is not expected until 15 March. Vandenbroucke also confirmed that Moderna's coronavirus vaccine will start to be given to the population from next week.

Belgium will receive more than double the number of Pfizer coronavirus vaccines initially planned. The country had, until now, access to 5.1 million doses out of the 200 million ordered by the European Commission last November. Now the Commission has ordered a further 300 million, of which 7.5 million will head to Belgium, bringing the total to 12.6 million. The majority of the extra jabs are due to be delivered in the second quarter of this year. Belgium is also starting to receive the first deliveries of the Moderna vaccine.

A vast coronavirus vaccination centre at Heysel's Palais 1 will be ready by Monday to accommodate 100,000 people per month. But it won't open until at least 15 February because there are no vaccines. It would first be used for healthcare workers, then people over 65 from March.

The Walloon government is looking into making public transport free for anyone visiting a vaccination centre. "I hope that we will be able to confirm this possibility very soon, which will encourage vaccination and which will highlight the role of public transport," said regional transport minister Philippe Henry.

Pfizer will reduce the number of vials of coronavirus vaccines it is supplying to Belgium - because it is possible to obtain six doses from a vial, when initially it was thought that only five doses could be administered. The contract with Pfizer is for a set number of doses - not a number of vials. "Pfizer has recalculated the number of vials based on a multiple of six, not five," a vaccination taskforce spokeswoman confirmed. Pfizer said its decision was necessary given the "extremely tense market in Europe and internationally" for its coronavirus vaccines.

Good news for Anderlecht football fans: you'll soon be able to return to the Lotto Park stadium. Not to see a match, but to get vaccinated against coronavirus. The club's grounds will be used as one of 10 venues around the Brussels region for the mass vaccination campaign from early March. It will have a capacity of 25,000 doses per month and will be open 12 hours a day, by appointment, including one late-night opening.

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."

Brussels' first coronavirus walk-in vaccination centre will open on Tuesday, 2 February, at the current testing site on Boulevard Pachéco. Others are in preparation and will open as soon as we have the vaccines available. Brussels' Common Community Commission said: "More information on this subject will be communicated in the coming days."

As more coronavirus vaccines are approved by the European Union, further increasing supply, it is possible that all of the Belgian population could be vaccinated by September, according to Dirk Ramaekers, who leads the country's vaccination taskforce. The pace of Pfizer vaccine deliveries should accelerate, after the European Commission ordered an additional 300 million doses. Vaccination in care homes should be completed by mid-February. Healthcare workers will start soon after, with over-65s in March and the rest of the population from June.

After a pilot week between Christmas and the New Year, in which 700 people were vaccinated, Belgium's coronavirus vaccination campaign officially kicked off in early January. In the first phase, the jab will be given on a voluntary basis to some 200,000 residents and staff in care homes. Pfizer/BioNTech is due to deliver 87,000 doses per week. Each person receives two doses, 21 days apart, so the first phase is likely to take until mid-February.

The European Medicines Agency has given the green light for Moderna's coronavius vaccine. It is the second vaccine to be approved by Europe, after Pfizer's. The European Commission has pre-ordered 160 million doses. Belgium has committed to buy two million. Moderna's vaccine has to be stored at -20°C, while Pfizer's requires -70°C.

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.

Brussels social protection organisation Iriscare has sent a memo to nursing homes with instructions on how not to waste doses of the coronavirus vaccine. If, at the end of a day's vaccination, there are unused vials and syringes, care homes have been instructed to call the fire department. The surplus jabs will then be collected and used to vaccinate volunteer firefighters - and potentially general practitioners living within close proximity of any given care home.

A large-scale coronavirus vaccination centre will open at Heysel in March. A second one is planned for the city centre, the region's health minister Alain Maron has announced. Phase 1B of the vaccination campaign, when everyone over 65 will be invited to get the jab, is due to begin by April. "We are vaccinating as quickly as possible and the regions will vaccinate at the same rate," Maron said. "I am very keen to speed up the tempo but in the best possible conditions."

About 85% of care home residents in Belgium are in favour of getting the coronavirus vaccine, federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said on Monday. "It is an excellent rate, and necessary," he said.

Brussels' 11,500 care home residents should all be vaccinated by the end of January, the region has announced. The mass vaccination campaign begins on 5 January at Brussels' 137 retirement facilities and is coordinated by six hospitals, each of which is responsible for all the homes in a given geographical area. 101-year-old Lucie Danjou was the first person in Brussels to receive the coronavirus vaccine, on Monday.

Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine is not suitable for everyone, Sudpresse reports. Children under 16 are excluded from the current vaccination campaign, as are pregnant and breastfeeding women, people who have had serious allergic reactions to vaccines in the past, and people who have had coronavirus recently and for whom the symptoms of the disease disappeared less than two weeks ago. It is also recommended that women who are trying to conceive use contraception for two months after the last dose of the vaccine is administered.

Belgium will issue a certificate to everyone who is vaccinated against coronavirus, which will be available to download from the official website MaSante.belgique.be. "This system already exists in Flanders and will be available in Brussels and Wallonia in a few weeks," a federal government spokeswoman said. But she added: "It will not be required to access public places or public events, at this stage in any case. In the private sphere, on the other hand, airlines and private event organisers will be able to request it from each participant."

So, who gets vaccinated next? After nursing home residents and staff, from February, it will be the turn of all other healthcare personnel to the get the jab. From April, over-65s and over-45s with underlying health conditions such as diabetes and obesity will be invited to get vaccinated. The second phase of the campaign is scheduled for around July/August. This is when the rest of the public is likely to start getting the jab, with the aim of having as many people in Belgium as possible vaccinated before autumn sets in.

Belgium's federal government will contribute €4 million to Covax, the international collaboration to provide coronavirus vaccines to the world's poorest countries. Two billion doses have already been donated via the scheme, with the goal to fund another 1.3 billion more in 2021 to provide access to the Covid-19 jab to people in 92 developing countries. "This is the essence of international solidarity," said Belgium's minister for development cooperation, Meryame Kitir. "Each country contributes according to its own means."

The first day of Belgium's coronavirus vaccination marathon went to plan, according to the government's coronavirus commissioner. Vaccines were thawed, delivered and administered to schedule, with none of the doses going to waste. Observed for 15 minutes after the injection, the vaccinated people did not show any noticeable side effects. "2021 will be a full year of vaccination," said a spokesman for the vaccination task force, which hopes to have four million Belgian residents vaccinated before the summer. "Monitoring vaccination throughout the year will be very important."

Belgium's Bioethics Committee has raised the possibility of making the coronavirus vaccine compulsory if the initial vaccination campaign does not achieve the desired collective immunity. The idea appears in a note sent by the committee to the Council of Ministers last week, ahead of the latest coronavirus committee meeting. Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke insists the Covid-19 vaccine will remain on a voluntary basis. He said he counted "on the solidarity of the greatest number of people to be vaccinated and thus protect themselves and others".

The Belgian military has offered to lend a hand in the coronavirus vaccination campaign, providing extra manpower at vaccination centres, army medics to administer the jab and logistical support in transporting and storing the doses. Defence minister Ludivine Dedonder said: "The flexibility and adaptibility of the defense personnel have already been demonstrated in recent months. The defense is an expert in large logistics operations, and it offers this knowledge and this capacity to help the country during this phase of the crisis."

Federal budget secretary Eva De Bleeker briefly posted a table on Twitter showing the cost of each manufacturer's coronavirus vaccine and how many doses Belgium would receive of each. It was promptly deleted.

The European Commission has issued Belgium with a telling-off after budget secretary Eva De Bleeker tweeted the prices per dose of each manufacturer's coronavirus vaccines. A Commission spokesperson said the tweet was a breach of contractual confidentiality. "Publishing the information would weaken our position in other negotiations, which are still under way," the spokesperson said.

Brussels Expo is ready to lend a hand in the mass coronavirus vaccination programme. "We can normally welcome up to 70,000 people a day," says chief executive Dennis Delforge. "Brussels Expo would be the ideal place to vaccinate up to 40,000 people a day. In our 2021 annual planning we take into account that we will participate in the vaccination campaign."

Three quarters of people in Belgium intend to get vaccinated against coronavirus, according to a new poll by four news organisations. About 40% of respondents said they intended to be vaccinated as soon as is allowed, while 35% were willing to wait a few months longer. 10% were hesitant about getting the vaccine, and 14% were resolutely against the idea.

About 45,000 people in Brussels will be vaccinated against Covid-19 in the first three months of 2021, the region's health minister Alain Maron has confirmed. The first batch of vaccines will be reserved for staff and residents of nursing homes, followed by hospital staff and other health personnel. For the rest of the population, including the elderly and other at-risk groups, "the decision has yet to be made" about timing, Maron said, although it would likely be "in the spring". Three of Brussels' coronavirus testing centres will be transformed into vaccination centres. 

Belgian medical association Absym is against the idea of allowing pharmacists to administer the coronavirus vaccine. The reaction comes after the Flemish pharmacists' network suggested the idea. Absym said while the intention to ease the workload on doctors was laudible, there was a "serious health risk" in allowing the vaccine to be administered without the presence of a doctor. "Vaccinating is and remains a medical act which can only be performed by doctors or nurses," said Absym.

The first stage in Belgium's mass coronavirus vaccination plan will take longer than planned, after Pfizer announced that it could only deliver 300,000 doses by the beginning of January, instead of 600,000. This means that 150,000 nursing home residents can be vaccinated instead of the planned 300,000. Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke is hopeful that the vaccine supply will be back on track by February.

Belgium is playing a major role in the production and distribution of coronavirus vaccines worldwide. Pfizer's site in Puurs, near Antwerp, one of the pharmaceutical firm's largest sites in the world, is producing 50 million doses by the year-end and 1.3 billion more in 2021. Shipments have already been sent to the United States from Zaventem airport. Another batch is on its way to the UK, which begins its vaccination programme this week. Israel is set to receive four million doses from Belgium by the end of the month.

More details have been confirmed about Belgium's coronavirus vaccination strategy. A first group of 300,000 people will receive the Pfizer vaccine from January, in two doses, three weeks apart. The first priority group will be staff and residents of nursing homes, and frontline healthcare workers. A second phase will target over-65s in general, and over-45s with underlying health issues. A third phase, targeting the general public, will follow once vaccines from other manufacturers come on to the market.

Through the European Commission, Belgium is expecting to receive 12.9 million doses - 7.7 million from AstraZeneca (given in two doses) and 5.5 million from Johnson & Johnson.

The first Covid-19 vaccines in Belgium are expected no earlier than mid-January, Walloon health minister Christie Morreale told the region's parliament on Tuesday. "The entire system is being put in place," she said. "We will follow the conclusions of specialists and vaccinate, in order, the staff and residents of hospitals and care homes; social workers; those over 65 and over 45 with underlying health conditions."

Belgium has approved the purchase of five million doses of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine. "If this vaccine obtains a marketing authorisation, Belgium will buy it," the interministerial public health committee said. The purchase would be coordinated at EU level by the European Commission.

AstraZeneca has announced that it cannot fulfil its first delivery of coronavirus vaccines in full. The EU had pre-ordered 300 million doses, of which Belgium is due a share of 7.5 million. "Initial volumes will be more limited than originally anticipated, due to reduced yields at a manufacturing site within the supply chain," the firm said, but added: "We will provide tens of millions of doses in February and March to the European Union, and we continue to increase production volumes."

Health minister Frank Vandenbroucke says AstraZeneca's delay is "extremely embarrassing". He told RTBF: "There are a lot of uncertainties and people need to understand that the vaccination task force will have to constantly review its strategy. But Pfizer and AstraZeneca make this task extremely difficult."

The Federal Agency for Medicines and Health Products has carried out a spot check on Astra-Zeneca's vaccine partner, Novasep, in Seneffe "to ensure that the delay in vaccine delivery was indeed due to a production problem on the Belgian site". The inspection was ordered by Belgian health minister Frank Vandenbroucke, at the request of the European Commission, which has engaged in a very public spat with the pharmaceutical firm after it announced that only a quarter of the doses expected in the first quarter would arrive in time. A report by the inspectors is expected in "a few days".

Belgium has approved a fourth coronavirus vaccine purchase. It will buy 2.9 million doses from German manufacturer CureVac as soon as it has received marketing approval from the European Medicines Agency. This brings the number of coronavirus vaccines ordered by Belgium to more than 20 million - 7.74 million from AstraZeneca, 5.16 million from Johnson & Johnson and five million from Pfizer. CureVac's vaccine is a bit behind the others - it will enter phase 3 clinical trials in the coming weeks and could become available in the second quarter of 2021.

Brussels Airport is busy making logistical preparations for the arrival of coronavirus vaccines on Belgian soil. It's a big challenge as the vaccines lost their effectiveness at room temperature. Some of the vaccines must be stored at -70°C. They will be transported with the help of dry ice, under constant temperature control. "This is not the first time that vaccines have been transported through Brussels Airport," said Koen Gouweloose, the managing director of Swissport. "We did it during the Ebola epidemic in Africa for example. We have experience." An airport spokeswoman said everything is ready for the massive distribution effort. All that's missing, for now, are the vaccines.

"The vaccine isn't going to solve everything," says interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem. "It won't make the virus go away. It will just allow us to quickly build up group immunity in society." He added: "The search for group immunity purely on a natural basis, that is to say without the aid of a vaccine is a delusion, unless one is prepared to pay a significant price in human life and in destruction of the health system." Van Laethem estimates that 60,000 people in Belgium would die if the country went for a group immunity approach without a vaccine. "We can predict that after the second wave, somewhere between 10 and 20% of the Belgian population will have coronavirus antibodies."

Infectious disease specialist Erika Vlieghe says we do not have enough information about all the potential coronavirus vaccines to determine which ones we should buy and for whom. "A vaccine may work very well for young people, but not very effective for people over 80," she says. "The strategy will therefore depend from one vaccine to another."

"It will be complicated to vaccinate eight million Belgians," says Jean Stéphenne, who chairs the German pharmaceutical company CureVac. "More so in French-speaking Belgium than in Flanders, because French-speaking people are very influenced by France which is one of the countries where opposition to vaccination is the strongest. We will have to convince on a rational basis and not give in to emotion." He believes the elderly will be relatively easy to convince, but persuading younger people will be more complicated. "It is a civic act. For a vaccine to be effective, it is necessary to achieve vaccination coverage of 60-70%."

Belgium's various health ministers have agreed on a coronavirus vaccination strategy. The vaccines, once available, will be 100% reimbursed and voluntary - but the goal is for at least 70% of the population to get vaccinated. Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said: "There are people who have doubts and right now you can't make a decision because vaccines have to be validated, but if vaccines are validated by institutions independent of the industry, then people can have confidence, both with regard to the positive impact of these vaccines and with regard to safety in their use." A Covid vaccine taskforce will be set up to determine the practical details for the vaccine rollout. Belgium is part of an EU-wide vaccine procurement programme. Four contracts have already been signed at European level. After promising news from Pfizer last week, American biotech firm Moderna has announced that its own vaccine was 94.5% effective. It plans to manufacture 20 million doses by the end of December.

Mental health

The latest coronavirus study by the University of Antwerp shows Belgians are feeling down - more so than during the first wave - with students and unemployed workers in the hospitality industry among those feeling the most affected. UAntwerp researcher Philippe Beutels said: "Young people between the ages of 16 and 25 continue to struggle."

Masks

The Brussels region has reintroduced the requirement to wear a mask in all public places.

The nationwide rule is that wearing a mask is compulsory for all over-12s, in busy places, where a safe distance cannot be maintained. This includes public transport (the vehicle and while waiting at a station/stop), shopping streets (as defined by each municipality), museums, libraries, places of worship, cinemas, theatres and concert halls. The potential fine is €250.

Charleroi has made wearing a mask compulsory in all public places, and has ordered night shops and petrol station convenience stores to close at 20.00. The measures begin on Monday. The rule on masks does not apply to children under 12 or people doing sport, including cyclists.

Namur has reintroduced the requirement to wear a mask in the city centre. Masks will also be compulsory along the banks of the Meuse and Sambre.

Belgium's federal health ministry and the Anti-Poison Centre have launched an awareness campaign, after reporting a record number of cases of domestic accidents involving disinfectant gel and other cleaning products. Bad reactions to hydroalcoholic gel increased five-fold since the coronavirus outbreak began, and incidents including bleach have doubled. The high alcohol content of disinfectant gels can lead to serious intoxication, especially in children.

The latest coronavirus figures and measures can be found on the federal government’s dedicated website, in four languages.

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.

Written by The Bulletin