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Updated: Our practical guide to how Belgium's coronavirus measures affect you
What's the latest?
Experts sitting on the Gems crisis management committee are drawing up a plan for the easing of Belgium's coronavirus measures - but one that does not mention any dates. Instead, the opening up of shut-down sectors will based on various epidemiological thresholds. "I understand that people want to have dates, because it is very difficult to offer a perspective to the sectors if we do not give a chronology," said virologist Steven Van Gucht. "But we are now going to think about the epidemiological thresholds that we want to reach. We want to be certain that easing can be done safely."
Coronavirus worries are keeping almost a third of people in Belgium awake at night. According to a VUB and Brugmann hospital study, 29% of people suffer insomnia, up from 19% in during the first coronavirus shutdown last year and 7-8% before the pandemic hit.
Prime minister Alexander De Croo has taken to Facebook Live to answer people's coronavirus questions. He said he was hopeful that in May "we can have a drink on the terrace, but only if the figures are good and the health situation allows it". On the foreign travel ban, De Croo said: "Honestly, it would surprise me if this summer it is still forbidden - but we have to be careful."
The experts advising the government on easing the coronavirus restrictions have reportedly drawn up an "à la carte" menu for politicians to pick from - a list of every possible relaxation and the potential cost in terms of new infections. Increased the number of social contacts allowed outdoors would, for example, cost less than reopening cafes and restaurants.
A ministerial decree has clarified what counts as an "essential shop", which can remain open during the four-week coronavirus shutdown. They include food stores, convenience stores, shops selling pet food and hygiene/care products, pharmacies, newsagents, bookshops, petrol stations, telecoms shops, medical device suppliers, DIY stores, garden centres, flower shops, stationery and haberdashery stores. Car washes, ice cream shops and estate agents can also remain open.
Delhaize has reported several incidents of customers refusing to wear a mask, because they say they have been vaccinated against coronavirus. A spokesperson said "about 10 to 20" cases had been reported so far, adding: "More and more people are questioning the obligation to wear a facemask because they are vaccinated."
A pet food and fishing supplies store in Dinant is facing the unusual scenario of being considered both "essential" and "non-essential" at the same time. Customers can walk in freely to buy food for their animal, but if they want to access the fishing side of the shop, they have to leave again and send the owner an SMS requesting an (immediate) appointment, RTL reports.
Clothing retailer Pimkie has been declared bankrupt by a court in Tournai. Twenty-four Belgian stores and 136 employees are affected. Management said turnover had been down for several years, exacerbated further by the pandemic.
Retail federation Comeos says the requirement to book an appointment to visit a "non-essential" shop will cost the sector €1 billion in lost revenue over the coming month. The biggest stores are limited to 50 customers per half-hour. A survey by Comeos found most stores saw a 60-85% drop in turnover on Saturday. "If this first Saturday is indicative of the weeks to come, several retailers plan to close," the federation said.
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.
Interfederal spokesman Steven Van Gucht is confident we will be able to travel within Europe this summer. "It's going to be fine," he told Het Laatste Nieuws. "The European vaccination strategy has been the subject of much criticism, but the great advantage is that all EU countries are vaccinating at the same rate. Because the situation will be similar everywhere in summer, it offers the prospect of opening up internal borders."
The likelihood of the non-essential travel ban being lifted for the Easter holidays is slim. What about the summer? Elio Di Rupo said: "Before all these vaccine delays, we had planned to vaccinate everyone over 18 who wanted it by the end of June, with at least one dose, which would have meant a great degree of freedom in July and August. Now there is a delay. If we can make up for this delay, we can breathe a little more."
Border police carried out spot checks on 67,000 people travelling during the carnival half-term holidays - of whom 435 were found to be making a non-essential trip.
The Belgian federal government plans to offer low-interest loans to travel agencies to ensure that customers receive their refunds on time. Travel agents owe their customers €193 million for bookings that were paid-up and then cancelled. At first, they issued vouchers to be redeemed against a future booking - but these are now expiring and customers are entitled to their money back. "Not all agencies can repay these amounts and that is why the government will provide a loan at a preferential rate over five or six years," said consumer affairs minister Eva De Bleeker.
Police checks were on the Franco-Belgian border in West Flanders after an outbreak of the British variant of coronavirus was detected in Dunkirk. Provincial governor Carl Decaluwé said: "There is a lot of commuter traffic and not much can be done about it. On the other hand, we see that many people are still crossing the border to buy cigarettes or just to go for a walk."
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."
From 6 April, it will be possible to purchase coronavirus self-testing kits in pharmacies. The result appears in 15-20 minutes. For children under 12, the test must be performed by an adult. If the test is negative, you still have to remain vigilant, because you might still be infectious (there is a risk of a false negative). If the test is positive, you should contact your GP who will prescribe a PCR test to confirm the result. The self-testing experiment will be evaluated after four weeks - and could be extended to supermarkets.
Brussels' night-time curfew, from 22.00-6.00, has been extended to 25 April, as have all the other regional measures taken to limit the spread of coronavirus: the requirement to wear masks in all public places, the closure of shops at 20.00 and the ban on consuming alcohol in public. Brussels minister-president Rudi Vervoort said the coronavirus figures in the region were "more than worrying".
The co-president of the Ecolo political party, Jean-Marc Nollet, has told reporters he is not respecting the rule on having just one close personal contact who you can invite indoors. "No, I can't respect the bubble," he said. "For a few weeks now I have allowed myself to invite a couple. I do my best, I am a human being. Human contact is vital. I consider that only one contact since November is not tenable."
Brussels' curfew will remain in place from 22.00-6.00 until at least the beginning of April, minister-president Rudi Vervoort has announced following a meeting on Wednesday of the region's 19 mayors. If the coronavirus numbers improve, the Brussels curfew could be brought into line with the rest of the country - midnight to 5.00 - next month.
Leaked photos showed several dozen prison officers at Lantin prison partying and drinking, without masks or safe distancing. Management described the event as "unacceptable" and said it would harm the ongoing lobbying for prison officers to be considered a priority group for vaccination.
Brussels mayor Philippe Close has asked the city's police to take a tougher stance on outdoor gatherings, after several thousand people descended on the Bois de la Cambre to enjoy the good weather - often without masks or safe distancing. Similar gatherings were reported in Liège, where a large number of students met up in a park, on the Sint-Pietersplein in Ghent and in Leuven, where police cleared a crowded park on Wednesday. Leuven mayor Mohamed Ridouani said: "I understand that everyone wants to enjoy the good weather, but the pandemic is still not over and the measures apply to everyone."
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
Federal mobility minister Georges Gilkinet says the "window seat" rule on SNCB trains to the coast will be implemented as planned on 3 April. Passengers over 12 should only occupy the seats closest to the window, to ensure they are better spread out and to limit the number of people on each train. SNCB chief executive Sophie Durtordoir had threatened to scrap trains to the coast altogether if the rail operator was left alone to handle the issue of overcrowding by itself. Gilkinet said extra police would be deployed at stations and on stations - but added that he expected the SNCB to provide extra staff too. The window seat measure applies from 3-15 April, and on the weekend of 24-25 April, on outbound trains to the coast.
The SNCB has urged daytrippers to stay away from the Belgian coast, after chaotic scenes at Brussels' main rail stations on Tuesday. The rail operator had to bring in crowd control marshalls to limit the number of people boarding trains for the seaside. "There must have been at least 200 people waiting to take a train to the coast," on eyewitness told RTL. Similar measures will be in force this Wednesday, from 3-18 April and on the weekend of 24-25 April.
The coronavirus crisis has cost Belgian rail operator SNCB an estimated €1 billion in lost revenue. "Before the Covid crisis, we transported 900,000 passengers per day," said chief executive Sophie Dutordoir. "In the first wave, we fell to just 10%, or 90,000 travelers. In the meantime, we are back up to 52%." The SNCB is forecasting a €400 million budget deficit for 2021.
Blankenberge will not allow any major events during the summer, its mayor has announced. The city wants to focus on smaller events instead to manage the crowds. "Usually, there are outdoor concerts here and there, but we will not allow them this summer," said Daphné Dumery. "In summer, there are already a lot of people. Organising additional events is therefore not on the agenda."
Theme park owners say the decision to postpone the 1 April "outdoors" stage in Belgium's coronavirus easing is "a real blow" for business. Jean-Christophe Parent, director of Walibi Belgium, said opening amusement parks would have ensured daytrippers were more evenly spread out around Belgium, instead of congregating at the coast and the Ardennes. "We have 400 seasonal workers who are just waiting. The postponement is a huge disappointment." Meanwhile, Plopsa Coo in Stavelot has asked for subsidies. "It's a disaster," said its director. "We prepared everything for nothing. It is very difficult for the staff too. The worst thing is that we cannot give prospects. We have to wait and always wait. We will have to contact the state again to obtain subsidies because we are not going to survive otherwise."
The federal government has released €7 million in extra financial support for the hotel sector. The aid measure consists of a reduction in social contributions for up to five employees per hotel until summer 2021. It is applicable to hotels that have lost at least 60% of their revenues.
The SNCB will test a new system during the Easter holidays to forecast how busy trains will be. The system is based on the number of people using the journey planner on the SNCB website and app. The pilot project will be tested on the route to Ostend before being extended to other coastal resorts.
The governor of West Flanders, Carl Decaluwé, is worried about possible overcrowding on the Belgian coast during the Easter holidays. "We even think that there could be more people than during the summer holidays," he said. Several mayors of coastal municipalities have already expressed their concerns at the prospect of a strong influx of tourists and daytrippers. Decaluwé has asked for police reinforcements.
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 and events
The 2021 edition of Rock Werchter music festival has been cancelled. The next edition is now scheduled for 30 June-3 July 2022. "This decision was really not taken lightly," the organisers said. Over the past few months, we have spoken extensively with authorities, experts and representatives of other festivals, the aim being to ensure a safe restart. We have come to the following conclusion: it is impossible to prepare normally for the festival. To postpone the festival again is the right decision."
The Brussels 20km, initially planned for 31 May, has been postponed until 12 September."Our wish is that an event like this one can go ahead, as we have done for more than 40 years," said organiser Carine Verstraeten.
More than 8,000 people on Facebook registered that they would be attending a spoof music festival in the Bois de la Cambre on April Fool's Day. La Boum promised more than 100 DJs including Calvin Harris, Carl Cox, Martin Garrix and Lost Frequencies across eight stages. "No distancing or barrier gestures will be tolerated," the parody event listing announced.
Eight venues in the City of Brussels will take part in a pilot scheme to make them "Covid-safe" with investment in new equipment and technology, including ventilation systems and UV disinfection devices. Infectious disease specialist Nathan Clumeck has worked with Brussels mayor Philippe Close on the new scheme. The venues that will benefit from the new investment are La Madeleine concert hall, Chez Léon and Roy d'Espagne restaurants, the Palais du Midi, Kinépolis cinema and one of ULB university's lecture halls. Two specialist schools for professional training, the Institut des Arts et Métiers and Institute De Mot-Couvreur are also on the "Covid-safe" list. Other venues can apply to join the scheme. Each will benefit from a tailor-made risk assessment, to create a checklist of the necessary improvements to make, with the possibility of some public co-funding.
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.
A jazz guitarist in Dinant organised a series of mini-concerts in a church in protest against the coronavirus restrictions. He had planned to play to 15 people - the maximum allowed at a church service - every 40 minutes for five hours. Police arrived within a few minutes and collected the ID details of those present, who each face a €250 fine. The musician could be fined €4,000.
Several hundred people took part in an unauthorised carnival celebration in the Saint-Léonard district of Liège, with beer, music and very few masks or safe distancing. The event was initially intended to be part of the Belgium-wide Still Standing For Culture initiative, which has seen pop-up events around the country in support of artists and other cultural players. The date coincided with when the neighbourhood's carnival would have taken place, which some residents interpreted as a green-light to go out and party.
Schools and children
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.
Third- and fourth-year secondary pupils in Wallonia and Brussels will resume 100% face-to-face teaching from 29 March. Students in the fifth and sixth year should be back in class after the Easter holiday on 19 April.
The municipality of Evere wants to vaccinate its teachers, to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Acting mayor Ridouane Chahid has written to Brussels health minister Alain Maron asking that teachers be added to the reserve list of candidates who will be offered the jab if there is a surplus of opened vials at the end of any given day. "Staff in schools are faced all day long with around 20 children in the same place," Chahid wrote.
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."
Belgium has seen a sharp decline in premature births since the coronavirus crisis began, according to a study by seven health insurance funds based on neonatal admissions data from 45 Belgian hospitals. Between mid-March and late-August 2020, the number of babies born before-term fell by a third. Gynaecologist Julie Belhomme, head of obstetrics at Brussels' CHU Saint-Pierre in Brussels said the general slowdown in women's professional lives during the stay-at-home period could be a contributing factor. "It's still very surprising because so far science has not shown that working during pregnancy is a problem. We encourage pregnant women to have a normal professional life, to play sports. But there is something here that suggests that, when you stop completely, it seems to work."
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."
Belgium's health insurance funds have finalised the list of at-risk patients who will be next to be offered the coronavirus vaccine. The list contains about 1.5 million people under the age of 65 and was drawn up based on criteria set by the government earlier this year. Only the patient's national registry number is supplied. "At no point will medical data be communicated," said Luc Van Gorp, president of the CIN federation of mutuelles.
The coronavirus vaccination campaign will step up a gear in April, according to Walloon health minister Christie Morreale, who said there would be "as many people vaccinated in the next five weeks as in the last three months", adding: "It is likely that we can vaccinate all of the population who wishes before the end of summer if vaccines are available."
King Philippe visited the Pfizer plant in Puurs, Antwerp province, from where the coronavirus vaccine is shipped to 78 countries. "I am very proud of what you are doing," the king said. "You have put our country on the world map. Thanks to your vaccine, there is a lot of hope for many people."
Priority candidates for vaccination - over-65s and people with underlying health conditions - who refuse the jab will be offered a chance to change their mind. A second invitation will be sent to them during "phase 2" - the non-priority stage of the vaccination campaign. "We accept that a person can revise their previous position and say that, the epidemiological situation being bad, they intend to be vaccinated anyway," a vaccination taskforce spokeswoman said.
The city of Liège will reimburse the taxi fares for over-75s travelling to and from their vaccination appointment. Nine of the city's taxi firms have agreed to take part in the initiative.
Belgium should receive its first delivery of Johnson & Johsnon single-dose vaccines in mid-April, according to Dirk Ramaekers, head of the vaccination taskforce. In an update this weekend, the taskforce said that, so far, Pfizer-BioNTech appears to be by far the most reliable and punctual supplier, with accurate numbers every week until the end of next month. By the end of April, Pfizer will deliver more than 1.4 million doses.
Three more coronavirus vaccination centres have opened - in Anderlecht, Uccle and Woluwe-Saint-Lambert. This brings the total in the Brussels region to nine, with just one to still to come, at the military hospital in Neder-Over-Heembeek.
From 21 March, the SNCB will provide free train tickets for anyone travelling to receive their coronavirus vaccination. The ticket will be available from the SNCB website and app, vending machines and ticket counters. The free second-class return is only valid on the day of the vaccination and you must bring proof of your appointment.
Belgium will accelerate the vaccination of over-65s by leaving a 35-day gap between the first and second doses of the Pfizer jab, instead of 21 days. Until now, for each Pfizer vaccine delivered, a second was put in reserve to guarantee the second dose was administered on time, even if delivery problems arose. People who have already booked an appointment for a second dose, 21 days later, will still receive this as scheduled.
The federal crisis centre has received "several reports" of fraudulent vaccination letters and emails being sent to people, with the goal of obtaining people's personal data or money. A crisis centre spokesman stressed that the coronavirus vaccine was free - you will never be asked to make a payment or give your bank details.
Four more vaccination centres in Brussels opened on 15 March: in Molenbeek, Forest, Schaerbeek and Woluwe-Saint-Pierre. Anderlecht, Uccle and Woluwe-Saint-Lambert should follow a week later, meaning that by the end of March, nine of Brussels' 10 planned vaccination centres will be open - each with a capacity of 27,900 vaccinations per month (except Heysel, where 111,000 vaccinations per month are possible). The 10th venue, at the military hospital in Neder-Over-Heembeek, is delayed. The centres will initially be open from 9.30-16.30. By May, this will be extended to 12 hours a day, six days a week.
Belgium is reportedly considering inviting some healthy under-65s to be vaccinated early - to protect the privacy of those with underlying health conditions. Employers should not know that a member of staff has a health condition - but this might become obvious if an employee has to ask for time off work to get vaccinated during the priority phase. "The percentage of healthy patients we invite will have to be decided at an interministerial health conference," a federal government source said. A ratio of 90% at-risk to 10% healthy is reportedly being considered, although the plan has yet to be approved.
An interministerial health committee has approved giving the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to over-55s in Belgium. Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said: "The opinion of the experts was perfectly clear. AstraZeneca is an excellent vaccine, also for older people. We will therefore start to issue the invitations for people who are over 65 years of age."
After a very quiet start to the campaign, the vaccination centre at Brussels Expo was overwhelmed last Wednesday, with some people reporting queues of up to three hours. Why the sudden change? "As there were initially not enough people who responded to the vaccination invite, the Brussels authorities sent an email to police, social workers and people who work with the disabled, inviting them to come and be vaccinated without an appointment," said Brussels Expo operations director Emin Luka. "The problem is that these people must be registered in the computer system with a whole series of data. This operation takes several minutes and caused a huge queue."
Belgium is against the idea of introducing a "vaccination passport" that would allow Europeans to travel freely. Foreign minister Sophie Wilmès said it was not acceptable to make vaccination "a condition of being allowed to move around" - and the current testing and quarantine rules were enough to limit the spread of the virus.
Belgium's Superior Health Council is now recommending that pregnant women receive the coronavirus vaccine. "There is no known or recorded risk following the vaccination of pregnant women," said Frédéric Debiève, head of obstetrics at Saint-Luc university hospital.
Aside from Brussels Expo and Boulevard Pachéco in the city centre, none of Brussels' other planned coronavirus vaccination centres will open until 15 March at the earliest, due to delivery problems.
The vaccination centre at Brussels Expo has enough doses to vaccinate 1,000 people per day. But only about 200 are showing up. Céline Frémault, from the CDH party, is demanding answers: "In the midst of the crisis, a week's delay is like a hundred years. People are at their wits' end and deserve an effective strategy. We are missing out on thousands of vaccinations a day." Sabine Stordeur, co-head of the vaccination task force, said: "The centre operates on the principle of invitation. Messages did not always reach the right person and the majority of people did not receive the required invitations. All these hiccups from this week should be resolved next week and the week after." She insisted that no vaccines were going to waste - only those that are actually administered are taken out of the fridge. If the response from healthcare personnel remains slow, the vaccination taskforce will consider giving priority to police officers.
Several European countries suspended administering the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine amid concerns about possible blood clotting - but Belgium will not be doing the same. Interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem said: "For the moment, these cases are so few and so little documented that the interruption of the campaign would be more harmful than anything else. In most of the countries around us, the decision was made by politicians, not the medical safety agencies themselves. We decided, on our side, for reasons which seem scientific to us, to continue this campaign. I hope that the population will understand that it is really in their best interests, and especially for those over 75, to be vaccinated."
Walloon health minister Christie Morreale said: "The Belgian authorities trust doctors and scientists. The Superior Health Council, the European Medicines Agency, the World Health Organisation, all these bodies are made up of eminent independent experts who believe that vaccination should continue. We are monitoring the situation very carefully. If we learned that an element could change the situation, we would not take any risk."
The FGTB trade union threatened to blockade the GSK plant in Wavre, where the CureVac coronavirus vaccine has started to be produced, in a protest against restructuring and potential job losses. GSK says the concerns are unfounded - the pharmaceutical firm has 9,000 staff in Wallonia and has recently invested €600 million in its two plants in Rixensart and Wavre. The Walloon government has intervened to act as a mediator in the conflict between staff and management.
The City of Brussels will provide a free taxi service to ferry senior citizens and people with reduced mobility to and from their coronavirus vaccination appointment. The city's social welfare organisation CPAS has signed a deal with two taxi firms, Taxi Bleus and Taxis Verts, to provide the service. CPAS president Khalid Zian said the city had more than 500 senior citizens living alone in social housing, who do not always have the possibility of taking public transport or asking help from a relative.
Of the 11,000 healthcare workers in Brussels who have been sent an invite to get vaccinated, only 3,000 have replied to book an appointment. The invitations were sent by email and SMS via the federal platform Doclr. A spokeswoman said: "We don't know if everyone has an email address in this database, if it's the correct address, if the invitation was sent to spam, etc. We will be mailing them a letter instead."
Health authorities in Wallonia have also decided to stop sending coronavirus vaccination invites by email, after encountering various problems in the first phase. Everything will now be sent by post - a first batch of letters went out on Tuesday to 35,000 people. Initial reports suggest emails were ending up in spam folders, or sent to people who had died. Others received an invitation even though they do not belong in a priority group and are therefore not first in line to get the jab.
Four pharmacies in Molenbeek and Anderlecht are taking part in an experiment to offer rapid coronavirus tests to customers. The area was chosen because about a third of residents do not have a general practitioner.
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.
Another glitch at Brussels' new coronavirus vaccination facility at Heysel, as more than 2,000 people were accidentally sent an invitation, despite not being in a priority group. The invites went out by SMS and email to 600 people in Flanders and 1,550 residents in the Brussels region. Inge Neven, head of the Brussels Hygiene Inspectorate, said the appointment would still be honoured for Brussels residents who received the message in error. Recipients in Flanders will be turned away.
Belgian hospitals will, once again, go up from phase 1A to 1B in their coronavirus alert plan, meaning half of intensive care beds nationwide will be set aside for Covid-positive patients, up from a quarter. Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said operations and other routine care should still go ahead. "It is an important message," he said. "If you are wondering whether you should go to the hospital, do not hesitate: hospitals today are very safe environments. Not going to the hospital today if you need to is a very bad idea. Moving from phase 1A to 1B does not mean postponing other medical care - they continue as usual."
The number of people in intensive care with coronavirus has broken the 500 mark for the first time in 2021. Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke is concerned. Responding to calls from several politicians to reopen cafe terraces earlier than May, Vandenbroucke said: "We are having the wrong discussion. It might be nice to talk about easing but it is lulling people into illusions."
Some hospitals in Belgium are starting to turn patients away who wear a cloth facemask. It's the case at Charleroi university hospital, some hospitals in Antwerp province and the Epicura hospital group in Ath, RTBF reports. Anyone entering the buildings is required to wear a disposable surgical mask.
Work inspectors have carried out no fewer than 16,800 spot checks on businesses since mid-December, to check that remote working rules are being respected. A total of 2,340 companies (or 14%) were found to be in breach - of whom 1,762 received a warning. Each company is now required to keep a list of employees for whom working from home is impossible.
Telenet has reached an agreement with staff to allow permanent working from home, up to 60% of the working week. Staff are free to spend their remote-working time anywhere in the European Union. The company will close one of its Mechelen offices as a result.
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.
The Belgian health ministry has urged people to stop wearing the free facemasks that were distributed by the federal government via pharmacies last summer. The 15 million masks were produced by Avrox and machine-washable at 30°C. It comes after RTBF revealed a leaked report from public health institute Sciensano had found the fabric may contain nanoparticles of silver and titanium dioxide, which are harmful to the respiratory tract when inhaled. Pharmacies have been told to stop distributing any of the masks they still have in stock, as a precautionary measure pending further analysis of the toxicity risks. According to figures from the defence ministry, which was in charge of procuring and distributing the masks, some 8.5 million have been collected from pharmacies since last summer. Another two million went to the federal administration, including the finance, economy and public health ministries.
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.
By the end of this year, Belgium will have spent €31.5 billion on managing the coronavirus crisis, according to figures seen by De Morgen. The biggest cost is temporary unemployment, followed by financial support for the self-employed. Healthcare costs come third, at €2 billion.
The Brussels government has drawn up new simplified regulations for any cafe or restaurant wanting to install or expand a terrace. "The rules will be the same for all 19 municipalities," said state secretary for urban planning Pascal Smet. Flexible, modular structures (without a roof) may be placed outdoors without a building permit. There must be at least 1.5 metres of clear pavement to allow pedestrians past. If the pavement is too narrow, one car-parking space can be occupied, with prior approval from the municipality or region (depending on the type of street). The regulations will apply from 1 April-31 October, this year and next.
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."
Fifty restaurants are taking legal action against the Belgian state, accusing it of not making sufficient plans to provide financial support to the sector before ordering it to shut down last October. "The operators of catering businesses have been completely left to fend for themselves by the federal state," the lawsuit reads. Among the restaurants involved are La Villa Lorraine, Brasseries Georges, La Chaloupe d'Or and Le Chalet Robinson.
Blankenberge has banned the consumption of alcohol in all public spaces. It means that beach bars cannot sell takeaway alcoholic drinks. However, owners of a beach hut can still consume alcohol there, as they are private property.
Le Pain Quotidien will temporarily close half of its bakeries due to the coronavirus crisis, with chief executive Annick Van Overstraeten criticising a "lack of government support". Thirteen outlets will close, including two in Brussels and three in Antwerp. They will reopen when restaurants are allowed to welcome indoor diners again.
Several organisations representing business sectors that are still shut down by coronavirus restrictions took part in a go-slow protest on the Brussels ring road and then gathered outside the Atomium, to mark one year since the measures came into force. Representatives from the catering, events, fairgrounds and nightclub sectors were all present.
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
What was meant to be a second-hand sale inside Wolf food hall in central Brussels - with food trucks and a live DJ - turned into a party, with videos circulating on social media showing large numbers of people packed into the venue, eating, drinking and dancing on the tables without masks. Wolf's manager told RTL that it was not his intention to flout the coronavirus rules. "I quickly intervened to put an end to it," he said. "I took the microphone and explained that we could not do that." The event was meant to run on Saturday and Sunday - but the second day was cancelled to avoid a repeat.
The mayor of Middelkerke, on the Belgian coast, has defied the federal government's timetable for easing coronavirus restrictions and has announced that cafes and restaurants in the municipality can reopen their terraces this week. He said it was "absurd that people are allowed to come here on crowded trains, to sit like sardines on the coast tram, but that they are not allowed to sit in a beach bar."
The Brussels Horeca Foundation and the SNI trade union has begun legal action against Unisono, the Belgian music copyright collection agency, which has continued to bill cafes and restaurants for the right to play music, even while they have been closed. "We want to only pay for what we consume," an SNI spokesman said. "If you are open eight months out of 12, you should only play for eight."
Belgians spent, on average, 12% less money in 2020 than the previous year, according to a study by ING. The decline was across all business sectors, with the exception of supermarkets and small food stores. Spending on holidays saw the biggest decline, down 50%. The trend looks set to continue into 2021, the bank said: "Ongoing restrictions, doubts about the speed of the vaccination campaign and fears of the economic consequences of this long crisis are weighing on consumer confidence."
The Walloon government has decided to shorten the practical driving test from 40 to 35 minutes to squeeze in more tests per day, as examination centres are confronted with a backlog of candidates waiting to take their driving test due to the coronavirus shutdown.
Brussels public transport operator Stib will provide a free ticket for anyone heading to their vaccination appointment (and back). Enter the personal code found on your invitiation letter on the Stib website and you will receive two codes to tap into any Stib ticket dispenser, on the "Event Pass" screen. Walloon public transport operator TEC is also providing free tickets to and from vaccination centres.
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.
Representatives from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith communities in Brussels gathered outside Central Station to call the limit of 15 worshippers at a religious service be relaxed. "We ask that the number of people be adapted according to the surface area of our places of worship," a spokesman said. "Just as there are large museums where a lot of people are allowed in, this should also be possible in the large places of worship."
Six landlords are taking the Brussels region to court in an attempt to overturn the ban on tenant evictions. For a year now, tenants have been protected from being thrown out of their home, to protect the most vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis. "We must remove this ban, it is illegal," said Eric Mathay, president of the Brussels regional branch of the National Union of Property Owners. "There are owners who cannot recover their property, even to occupy it themselves. The Brussels government is doing nothing for these people."
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."
Residents in Brussels' nursing homes will gradually be able to resume certain group activities. Once the vaccination rate among residents reaches 90%, it is proposed that shared meals and activities resume, and that up to two close contacts will be allowed to visit residents in their own room.
The coronavirus crisis has cost Belgian rail operator SNCB an estimated €1 billion in lost revenue. "Before the Covid crisis, we transported 900,000 passengers per day," said chief executive Sophie Dutordoir. "In the first wave, we fell to just 10%, or 90,000 travelers. In the meantime, we are back up to 52%." The SNCB is forecasting a €400 million budget deficit for 2021.