Coronavirus in Belgium: The latest developments
What’s the latest?
Belgium’s Higher Health Council, the federal health ministry’s scientific advisory body, has strongly urged the government to make wearing a mask compulsory in shops. The panel of experts said the measure would be wise “to protect the population from the sometimes inappropriate behaviour of certain people who are not concerned about protecting themselves and others”. Whether the federal government chooses to follow the advice remains to be seen.
King Philippe on Thursday visited Liège Airport, which has positioned itself as a European hub for the supply of protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic. More than a billion masks have passed through the airport since the outbreak began, plus gloves, protective gowns, respirators and test kits destined for numerous European countries, and coming mostly from China. In addition, Liège is also a hub for the UN’s World Food Programme, sending medical and humanitarian material to African nations.
Hunger will kill more people than coronavirus this year, Oxfam has warned. The NGO has identified 10 “extreme famine” hotspots around the world, where the situation is worsening because of the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is “undermining an already faltering global food system, exposing millions more to starvation”. It pointed to mass unemployment, disruptions to the food supply chain and declining funding for humanitarian aid.
Brussels health minister Alain Maron has approved a “second wave” plan for the region’s care homes, including several preventative measures to prepare the sector for a possible resurgence in cases. They include a central purchasing system for protective equipment, which will build up a three-month stock. Maron said: “We cannot be as unprepared as we were in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis, where nursing homes were in need of equipment and training. There are now protocols in place so that if a second wave arrives, the procedures are clear.” Care homes have until 31 July to draw up their own crisis management plan. Extra training sessions for staff are planned between now and 15 September.
Virologist and interfederal spokesman Steven Van Gucht has responded to criticism that Belgium was too slow to act against the coronavirus outbreak. Scientists Philippe Devos and Marc Wathelet, who were the first to alert the government to the threat, told VRT’s Terzake programme that Belgium intervened too late. Van Gucht said their claim was “a bit exaggerated”, adding: “Since the start of the crisis, we have taken the situation very seriously. From January we were busy day and night. All possible scenarios have been taken into account. The reality is that no one could calculate precisely what the impact of the corona outbeak would be.” Did Belgium shut down too late? Van Gucht said: “When we announced the shutdown, we had 560 infections and three deaths. We confined much faster than the Netherlands or the United Kingdom. The first local case occurred on 1 March. Twelve days later, we shut down.”
The emergency measures put in place to support Belgian companies and households has cost €14.4 billion so far, according to figures from the Belgian national bank. The measures, including grants for shut-down businesses and temporary unemployment, will have a €10.2 billion impact on the federal budget and €4.2 billion for the regions.
To take account of local coronavirus clusters within a country, the Belgian foreign ministry will be applying its red/orange/green traffic light system to specific cities, municipalities, districts or regions. Travel advice on the foreign ministry website will be updated accordingly in the coming days. Travel to the orange zones will be strongly discouraged, but not banned. Travellers returning from an orange zone will be strongly advised to take a coronavirus test, a second test after nine days, and self-isolate for 14 days.
Travel to red zones from Belgium will remain forbidden. If you return to Belgium from a red zone, you will be required to take two coronavirus tests – on arrival and nine days later – and self-isolate for 14 days. Although health prevention is a regional competence in Belgium, the rules will apply nationide, regardless of place of residence or the airport of arrival.
Belgian tour operators have called for more clarity from the Belgian government over the “orange zones” – where travel will be strongly discouraged and quarantine on return highly recommended. “The red and green colours are clear, but how are they going to apply the orange code?” asked a TUI spokesman. Belgium has so far announced it plans to classify some regions as red and orange, but has yet to announce where these regions are, providing a lack of certainty for tour operators and customers about to head off on holiday. Tour operator Sunweb says the “orange” classification still amounts to negative travel advice, which could mean cancellations are necessary.
Vivaqua has announced that it will not cut off any domestic water supplies for non-payment until the end of March 2021. The Brussels water supplier announced in March that it would be lenient with customers in arrears, initially until the end of June. By extending the gesture until October, the measure effectively applies until next spring, because cut-offs are not permitted by law during the winter months.
This year’s Brussels Marathon, which normally takes place in early October, has been cancelled. “Half of the participants traditionally come from abroad,” the organisers said. Instead, it will be possible to compete in the event virtually, using an app. Participants have the choice between three distances: 10km, 21km or a full marathon. The app will take you past popular landmarks around Brussels, with an audio commentary, and allow you to share your finish time on social media.
The Belgian real estate market has witnessed a slight recovery in June, according to notaries, after a 15.9% year-on-year decline in sales in the second quarter of this year, during the stay-at-home period.
The SNCB will launch an app in September allowing passengers to find out how busy a train is before boarding. The rail operator hopes the app will reassure people who have been avoiding taking public transport since the coronavirus outbreak, and plan their travel accordingly to avoid the busiest periods.
One in three workers in Belgium will continue to be do their jobs remotely, even after the coronavirus crisis has passed, according to a survey carried out by social security provider SD Worx. Some 92% of business leaders questioned said remote working was going as well as expected, if not better. A similar proportion said they would continue to offer it to their employees long-term, mostly like for one or two days per week.
If you have already applied for a mortgage payment holiday, it will be possible to request a further extension. The measure was due to expire on 31 October, but will now run until the end of the year. The further extension is subject to the borrower proving that they are still suffering financially from the consequences of the coronavirus crisis. New applicants for the payment holiday are also being accepted. The deadline is 30 September.
Police have warned that anyone caught not wearing a mask on SNCB trains and in stations will be fined €250 from this week. Until now, passengers have usually got away with a verbal caution. Federal police say spot checks will be reinforced between now and at least September, on platforms and on trains. “There are still unfortunately some people who do not get it,” a spokesman said. Since 4 May, when the requirement to wear a mask came into force, police have issued 1,000 reports for non-compliance.
Brussels Airport has forecast that passenger numbers will not return to pre-corona levels until 2024. “We are now at around 10% of normal capacity,” said airport chief executive Arnaud Feist, who estimates the loss so far at €200 million. “But that is still a long way from the traffic levels necessary to ensure the airport is profitable.” He said Brussels Airport needed to operating around 50-70% capacity to be viable. August this year is forecast to be more like 25%.
Belgium’s contact tracing app in the fight against coronavirus will be ready by September, according to Karine Moykens, chair of the Interfederal Testing & Tracing Committee. The app aims to supplement Belgium’s other contact tracing efforts, which have mostly been done manually by telephone. Use of the new app is voluntary. It uses Bluetooth to record who you have been in contact with. If you test positive, your GP will supply a code, to be entered into the app, which will then send your contacts a message informing them that they should take a test. According to a recent survey, four in 10 people in Belgium say they are willing to install and use the app.
Belgium has decided not to follow the EU’s recommendation to allow travel to and from a “safe list” of 15 non-European countries (Algeria, Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, Uruguay and China). A ministerial source said nine of the countries on the EU’s list were still categorised as “red” by the Belgian federal finance ministry, indicating that they remain high-risk, and the others do not guarantee reciprocity of free movement for all EU nationals. “After all the efforts made by everyone, we have decided to be prudent and take precautions,” said foreign affairs minister Philippe Goffin. Ministers will continue to monitor the latest virus stats in each of the countries on the list.
Spain has been downgraded from green to orange on the Belgian foreign ministry’s travel advice guide, because of the cluster of new coronavirus cases found around Lleida. Spanish authorities ordered a new lockdown for 200,000 people in the province due to a surge in Covid-19 cases. “Orange” means travel to Spain is still possible, but with restrictions. Interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem said: “This is a corner of Catalonia that is very little visited. It is quite far from the coast. There will probably still be rebounds like this in other tourist countries. What is needed is that these small local clusters are extinguished in time so as to prevent a wave spreading over the country. This is not a second wave , this is a local emergence, which could occur in Belgium too.”
You can invite 50 people to your wedding, but they cannot dance at the reception. “Can I dance at a private reception or banquet?” is one of the questions recently added to the official coronavirus info website. “No, this is not allowed,” the site says. “During wedding receptions, only the first dance between the newlyweds is allowed.” Erika Vlieghe, chair of the coronavirus exit strategy group, said dancing helped spread the virus, as participants were close together, breathing more heavily and singing.
Police broke up an illegal rave party in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw, just outside Brussels, on Friday night. It is reported that 150 partygoers were present, who fled as soon as they saw police arrive. A local police spokesperson said the organisers had been identified and faced prosecution. The generator supplying power to the sound system was seized.
The Belgian Red Cross has launched an urgent appeal for blood donors, as stocks are half their normal levels. There are 16 blood donation centres around the country, by appointment only, and wearing a mask is compulsory.
Belgium’s minister for the self-employed, Denis Ducarme, has ordered an investigation into the business practices of meal delivery firms Deliveroo and Uber Eats during the coronavirus shutdown. Ducarme said he had received complaints from a number of restaurateurs about excessively high commissions and profit margins charged by the platforms, reportedly as high as 30-35% of the total meal price. He said the aim was to “make more fair the commercial relations between a small independent business and a platform as big as Deliveroo”.
The coronavirus crisis has prompted several maternity wards around Belgium to permanently rethink their policy on allowing visitors. During the shutdown, only fathers were allowed to visit. According to RTL, several hospitals found that the restrictions were well-received by mothers and staff alike. One mother told RTL: “We felt that staff were much more available, more present and took much more time to care for us.” Some maternity wards are considering imposing limits on visitor numbers and visiting hours.
65% of Belgian municipalities have recorded zero coronavirus cases in the past seven days, according to the latest data from Sciensano.
A Brussels court has thrown out a legal action brought by 196 members of the public, who had complained that the coronavirus restrictions violated their fundamental rights and freedoms. The Court of First Instance said the claimants had gone to the wrong court – they should have taken their case straight to the Council of State. “No one has the subjective right not to have to comply with the law,” the court said.
The Belgian federation of event and congress organisers, Febelux, are taking legal action against the Belgian state to be allowed to resume their activities normally. Conferences can currently only go ahead with a maximum of 50 participants. Other events allow 200 people indoors, but the rules state that these people should be “seated”, which excludes most trade fairs. Febelux wants a decision on the reopening of the conference sector by 15 July and is seeking a €100,000-per-day penalty if not.
A citizens’ initiative called Coronadenktank is looking for nominations for “corona heroes” who have gone out of their way to help others during the crisis. Four of them will be invited to a special event with King Philippe at the royal palace in September. Nominate someone before 18 July at www.pleindespoir.be
Visit.brussels has launched the Brussels Health Safety Label, a standard awarded to tourism businesses in the region that fully comply with all the necessary coronavirus prevention measures, including attractions and museums, tourist accommodation, guided tour operators, catering and events. Applicants will have their venues checked against the latest national security council directives and can display the label in their window and online to help attract visitors.
A Zaventem-based firm has lost its appeal against the decision to give the federal face-mask contract to Luxembourg firm Avrox and Ghent-based Tweeds & Cottons. The defence ministry ordered 15 million and three million masks respectively from these two suppliers. I’ll Be Bag, a rival bidder, had appealed to the Council of State for the orders to be cancelled, claiming the winning suppliers had made unrealistic promises in terms of volume and delivery schedule. The complainant also took issue with the fact that Avrox’s 15 million masks can only be hand-washed at 30°C.
Belgium is ready to face a possible second wave of Covid-19, according to federal minister Philippe De Backer. He said Belgium had built up a strategic stock of more than 200 million surgical masks, 20 million gowns, half a million visors and about 40 million gloves for medical personnel. According to De Backer, Belgium is within the global top 10 countries for coronavirus testing per million inhabitants.