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Updated: Our practical guide to how Belgium's coronavirus measures affect you

05:41 19/02/2021

What's the latest?

Hairdressers in Belgium have been allowed to reopen on 13 February - with other contact professions such as beauty salons and tattoo parlours following on 1 March. The coronavirus consultative committee, which met on Friday afternoon, also approved the reopening of holiday villages and campsites from Monday 8 February and animal parks from 13 February - when estate agents will again be allowed to show potential buyers and tenants around properties. Read more here...

Foreign travel

Non-essential foreign travel to and from Belgium is banned. Anyone travelling must fill in this form. Border police will carry out random spot checks. The new form does not replace the Passenger Locator Form, which must still be filled in up to 48 hours before your arrival on Belgian soil.

Belgium's ban on non-essential foreign travel, which was extended from 1 March to 1 April, could be reassessed when the coronavirus committee next meets on 26 February, according to Walloon minister-president Elio Di Rupo. "I do not exclude that the ban will be lifted," he said. "But it could remain 'strongly recommended' not to go abroad." The European Commission has expressed "some concern" about the Belgian restrictions.

Very few checks are being carried out on whether people are following the quarantine rules - because the information provided to local authorities is too vague. Nathalie Debast, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flemish Towns and Municipalities, said local police received a long list of all the residents who should be in quarantine - "but we do not know if they are in fact infected people, people who have had high-risk contact or people returning from a red zone abroad." She said this made it impossible for police to prioritise who should be checked. "If we could at least know which people have actually tested positive, this would allow more targeted monitoring and allow municipalities to set priorities with the limited resources they have today."

No fines have been issued to travellers returning from a red zone who fail to take a coronavirus test, De Standaard revealed this week. Neither the federal police, which collects statistics from local police forces, nor the college of general prosecutors, nor the interfederal Testing & Tracing committee, are aware of any fines being issued. Tens of thousands of people who returned in January from red zones abroad did not comply with the compulsory test on days 1 and 7. This offence is punishable by a fine of €250.

The federal government intends to create a special fund to help travel agencies and tour operators avoid bankruptcy in the coming months - as many customers whose trips were cancelled last spring will soon become eligible for their money back. When the coronavirus crisis hit in March, package holiday operators issued more than 200,000 vouchers to travellers, for a total value of €356 million, entitling them to rebook their trip at a later date. After 12 months, the vouchers could be traded in for a refund - and that 12-month cut-off is fast approaching. The government fund would grant zero-interest loans to firms to ensure customers are paid what they are owed.

Travel agency Neckermann has been granted bankruptcy protection from its creditors, giving the firm four months to find a buyer. Customers can still make or modify reservations and redeem their vouchers. Chief executive Laurent Allardin said: "I strongly believe in Neckermann's future. Before the coronavirus crisis, business was going well. To this day we still haven't received any financial support from the authorities when we have been hit hard by the crisis."

A French couple living in Brussels have asked the Council of State to suspend Belgium's ban on non-essential foreign travel, arguing that it is illegal and disproportionate. Benoît Lebret, who has spent 23 years to-ing and fro-ing between Brussels and Paris, said: "My wife can no longer go to see her 83 and 85-year-old parents in Paris, I can no longer see my brothers and sisters. It is sad to see that something that in my opinion is essential, maintaining family ties across borders, has been banned and is considered non-essential." His lawyer will argue in court next week that the travel ban goes against the European principle of free movement of citizens.

Passenger numbers at Brussels Airport in January were down 84% on the same time last year. Passenger flight movements fell by 78%. Airport CEO Arnaud Feist said: "We hope that non-essential travel can resume safely before the Easter holidays and we are hopeful for the coming summer."

Daytrips and sightseeing

The Brussels Hotels Association has launched a promotional campaign to encourage residents to spend a night away from home with their partner, a close contact or best friend. High-end hotel rooms are on offer for a fraction of their normal price, from 12-21 February. See www.contactrapproche.brussels

Wallonia's tourism minister, Valérie De Bue, hopes the tourism industry will have some perspective by the end of February and be able to start making plans for a promotional push from Easter. With non-essential foreign travel banned for now, Visit Wallonia is focusing on domestic tourism for now, and promoting 2,000 walks with the aim of promoting little-known places, to prevent everyone from travelling to the same places.

Culture

A financial support package for Belgium's events sector has been extended until 1 July. "It is not yet clear when and under what conditions events may take place in the future," said economy minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne. "For this reason, event organisers will continue to face serious cashflow problems." Organisers of cancelled events can choose not to reimburse ticket-holders but instead issue a voucher, which can be redeemed up to two years later.

Schools

Extra-curricular activites for children aged 12 and under have been limited to groups of no more than 10. Parents are also asked to restrict their children's activities to one per week to limit the number of contacts. Camps organised during the Carnival holidays can go ahead as planned. Activities for children over 12 are allowed to resume for the first time since last autumn, provided they are done outdoors and in groups of no more than 10.

The University of Liège is working on a saliva testing procedure that could enable every primary and secondary school pupil in Belgium to be tested for coronavirus on a weekly basis - as has been done in nursing homes. ULiège professor Fabrice Bureau said: "We will start a pilot phase after the carnival. And then, after the Easter holidays, we will try to target all Belgian schools."

Vaccines

Belgium's coronavirus restrictions can be eased further only once over-65s and the chronically ill under 65 have been vaccinated, said Flemish minister-president Jan Jambon. "We decided at the last committee meeting to examine staggered restarts for different sectors at the next meeting. It can offer some perspective. But for as long as the numbers stagnate at this level, it is not enough to relax."

Letters inviting every Belgian resident to get vaccinated against coronavirus are due to be sent out in phases between March and June. The three-page letter will include a 33-character personal code which can be used to confirm your appointment online, as well as a scannable electronic ticket with a barcode and QR code which you should take with you to the vaccination centre. The letters will be sent out two weeks beforehand, Het Belang Van Limburg reported, based on the patient data held by each mutuelle health-insurance fund. The letter will tell you the date and time for both of your vaccination appointments (as two doses are required). In Wallonia and Brussels, the website to confirm your vaccination slot will be www.jemevaccine.be. In Flanders, it's www.laatjevaccineren.be.

Brussels' first public coronavirus vaccination centre has opened, on Boulevard Pachéco in the city centre. But don't all rush at once. It's reserved at first for healthcare personnel who do not work in hospitals or nursing homes, and who therefore have yet to be given the jab. It is expecting about 1,000 people to visit in this first week. When it's running at full speed, the centre will be capable of 900 vaccinations per day. Four other centres in Brussels have been set up, ready, but have yet to open their doors. "We are waiting for the availability of vaccines to ramp up," said Brussels health minister Alain Maron. "We still hope to be able to vaccinate 70% of the population by this summer."

Belgium's health ministers have agreed on a list of health conditions that will entitle people under the age of 65 to be vaccinated as a priority. It includes people with chronic kidney or liver disease and Down syndrome.

Pharmaceutical firm GSK will produce 100 million doses this year of Curevac's coronavirus vaccine at its plant in Wavre. The two firms are also working together to develop a messenger RNA vaccine that is effective against the newer variants of coronavirus that have emerged, with the objective of it being put on the market in 2022.

Belgium will not give the AstraZeneca vaccine to over-55s for the time being, pending further evidence of its effectiveness in the coming weeks, health minister Frank Vandenbroucke has announced. In other vaccine news, Belgium is set to receive 3.8 million Moderna vaccines in June - enough to vaccinate 1.9 million people.

The arrival in the coming weeks of 443,000 doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, which Belgium has decided not to give to over-55s, means several groups of people aged 18-55 will be vaccinated earlier than planned. These include people in "critical functions" including the police, firefighters and military - but not teachers. Teaching unions say they are "bitterly" disappointed that teachers are not considered a priority and has not ruled out industrial action after the carnival holidays.

Residents in Kraainem, Wezembeek-Oppem and Zaventem will be invited to Brussels Airport to get their coronavirus jab when it's their turn. A vaccination centre will be opened in the Skyhall event hall, with panoramic views over the airport tarmac. It's expected to open on 22 February and will have a capacity of 1,200 vaccinations per day. If you live in Overijse, Hoeilaart or Tervuren, your vaccine will be administered at the Markthal in Overijse.

A new coronavirus vaccination centre has been confirmed for Uccle - the 10th of its kind in the Brussels region. Opening on a date yet to be confirmed, it'll be located in a former AstraZeneca lab on Rue Egide Van Ophem, near Calevoet station.

The director of Child Focus, Heidi De Pauw, is among the signatories on an open letter urging Belgium to consider vaccinating young people as a priority. "Young people - 18-24 year olds - must be recognised as essential in our society," she said. "For their mental health, it is important to consider them as an essential group. The most important thing is that we start this debate and that we really take this group into account." Interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem does not agree: "There is no doubt that it is necessary to vaccinate vulnerable people as a priority. Without this, we will not be able to give more freedom to young people." He acknowledged that young people had been "collateral damage in the fight against the virus", adding: "We initially considered that since young people were not the target of the virus, everything was fine for them."

The mayors of four municipalities in the north-west of Brussels say they have been overlooked in the preparations to open mass vaccination centres around the capital. Under the current plans, residents in Berchem-Sainte-Agathe, Ganshoren, Jette and Koekelberg will have to go to Molenbeek, the nearest centre, to get vaccinated. The Molenbeek centre is one of 11 centres around the Brussels region, but its catchment area adds up to 220,000 inhabitants, or almost a fifth of the total Brussels population. The mayors have suggested that Koekelberg basilica itself could make a suitable venue for a more local vaccination centre.

Masks

Belgium's Risk Assessment Group has issued new guidance on masks. Covering your nose and mouth with a scarf or bandana is now no longer enough. Cloth and disposable surgical masks remain recommended. FFP2 surgical masks are not necessary, the group says, despite several European countries including Germany making them compulsory on public transport. "FFP2 is marginally more efficient but not much more," said interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem." Masks with a valve, often found in DIY/hardware stores, are not suitable. Employees should wear masks at their workplace at all times, even if they are more than 1.5 metres away from other colleagues.

Work

A moratorium on company bankruptcies expired on 1 February. According to the UCM union, an estimated 126,000 businesses in Belgium face going bust. The government has announced it intends to reform the procedure for bankruptcy protection, putting in place simpler measures for firms to negotiate a rescue plan with its creditors - which are often state bodies such as the taxman and social security. It should also become easier to ask for deferred VAT payments.

Eating/drinking

A restaurant in Rixensart, Walloon Brabant, reopened on 1 February - but with mannequins taking the place of regular customers. The owner of Chez Thérèse, Thérèse, told RTL: "We've given names to each mannequin, in memory of our great customers. We miss them a lot. Between the two waves, business was good - up 60% on the previous year. But afterwards, we're fallen back to zero. We can't take it any longer. We want to work again - this is our livelihood, our daily lives."

A crowdfunding campaign to support Brussels' cafes and pubs has brought in €200,000. Almost 4,000 people have joined the "Zuur" campaign, donating money to their favourite of 27 participating cafes. Donors will receive a free sour beer, brewed specially for the occasion, once pubs are allowed to reopen. See www.growfunding.be/zuur

Policing

Since March, police have drawn up more than 200,000 reports for breaches of the coronavirus restrictions. People under the age of 30 accounted for 55% of all the cases. So far, more than €7.6 million in fines have been collected.

Since the coronavirus crisis began, individuals and organisations have lodged 161 appeals with Belgium's supreme administrative court, the Council of State, seeking to overturn many of the country's Covid restrictions - everything from access to second homes to estate agents' viewings, the opening of casinos to whether or not a country should be classified a "red zone". Many of the cases were filed under the "extreme urgency" procedure, which leads to an accelerated judgment if the claimant can prove an imminent danger, such as a risk of bankruptcy. So what were the three most complained-about coronavirus rules? The closure of the hospitality industry (cafes, restaurants, private functions etc), the requirement to wear a mask and the restrictions on religious services. To date, 104 judgments have been delivered. Only three have ended up in the claimant's favour: the increase from 10 to 15 worshippers at church services, the reopening of campsites and holiday resorts, which had successfully argued unfair discrimination compared to the hotel industry, and the City of Brussels' ban on prostitution, which the court ruled was beyond the remit of a local mayor.

Health minister Frank Vandenbroucke has put forward a bill that would grant the Belgian state extensive emergency powers to fight against any future pandemic. "This law will lay a legal basis for what was done during the previous legislature," said Vandenbroucke. Former prime minister Sophie Wilmès acting government was granted special powers during the first wave to take decisions in the fight against coronavirus. "We want to create a legal, transparent framework."

Lawyers associations from each of Belgium's three language communities have criticised the over-use of ministerial decrees to pass coronavirus measures, without the necessary legal scrutiny and democratic approval in parliament. They argue that the rushed implementation of coronavirus decrees leaves the measures, and potential sanctions, open to interpretation. "They are constantly and rapidly changing, they often lack clarity, even coherence, and sometimes appear to be disproportionate," the lawyers say. "For the same offence, one judge may impose a heavy fine or even a prison sentence, while another gives an acquittal."

A court in Charleroi has overturned an earlier ruling which had dismissed the late-night curfew as illegal. The police court's ruling against the curfew in September was immediately appealed against by federal prosecutors. The court has now ruled that the curfew is perfectly legal, under the basis of a 2007 law on civil security which allows the interior minister to take such measures in exceptional circumstances.

Care homes

The vast majority of residents in Brussels' care homes have now received their second coronavirus jab and therefore fully vaccinated. Nursing home staff are also receiving their second injections this week. Inge Neven, head of the Brussels health inspectorate, said: "87% of the residents have been vaccinated. There are still a few who missed their vaccination due to illness or for other reasons, but they can now be included in a second round of orders."

Written by The Bulletin