Belgian government to relax lockdown measures in three phases, starting 4 May

Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes at a press conference at the end of a national security Council o fight the epidemic of Coronavirus in Brussels, Belgium. [EPA-EFE/BERT VAN DEN BROUCKE]

While the current lockdown measures will continue until 3 May (Sunday), Belgium is to begin a gradual deconfinement with an exit strategy to be rolled out with the key dates of 4, 11 and 18 May, as well as 8 June, the National Security Council (CNS) decided on Friday (24 April).

After seven weeks of “human and social sacrifices”, Belgium can finally turn to deconfinement, Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes told reporters after a seven-hour meeting.

The CNS brings together the prime minister, deputies, ministers, representatives of the federated entities, heads of the security services and scientists, supported by the Group of Experts for an Exit Strategy (GEES).

“Tonight we have lifted the veil on our short term future and this should encourage us to continue our efforts as they are paying off,” Wilmes said. “We ask that you demonstrate good citizenship.”

According to the exit strategy, the deconfinement “will be based on the criteria of being a step-by-step process to adapt measures according to the spread of the virus and the process not being final as a rollback of measures is not excluded.”

From one phase to the next, there will be control based on the spread of the virus, the number of hospitalizations below 200 per day and the saturation of intensive care, while the transition between phases will be announced a week in advance.

These dates aren’t set in stone and can be reassessed. Each of these phases will only be activated if certain conditions are met:

“We cannot rule out having to take a step back if the virus should flare up again,” Wilmes told reporters, stressing that the deadlines are not final.

Here’s a break-down of measures:

Phase 1: 4 May + 11 May

As of 4 May, the wearing of a mask or scarf will be compulsory in public transport (including the bus stop or the train station), school and at the workplace, from 12 years of age.

Each citizen will receive at least one standard cloth protection covering the mouth and nose free of charge, while employers will also be made responsible for providing protective equipment to their employees.

“We want to distribute two filters per person to be integrated in the mask people already have,” Wilmes said, adding that the surgical masks and FFP2 must remain reserved for front-line staff.

Masks will also have to be used on the work floor if the physical distance cannot be respected. A mask is recommended in public places, especially when physical distance cannot be respected.

“Regarding testing, the goal is to be able to offer a test to all people who need it: those who have symptoms, those whose profession exposes them, those who have been in contact with infected people,” Wilmes specified.

According to the exit strategy, Belgian testing capacity should reach 25,000 tests per day, a capacity which can be extended to 45,000 tests.

The ban on gathering remains in force.

Companies from non-essential sectors are allowed to start from 4 May, but there should be no direct contacts with customers, only business-to-business. Remote working will remain the norm for industries and companies, as far as possible, and people are asked to stay home.

Public transport will resume normal activities from 4 May.

To avoid having too many people on public transport, Wilmes said the government “advises people to travel by their own means of transport: on foot, by bicycle, by car to leave public transport to people who have it most need. ”

Outdoor physical activity will be allowed with a maximum of two people in addition to those who live with you under the same roof., provided social distancing is observed. Other outdoor sports activities will also be allowed, without contact and with physical distance for activities played by two people such as tennis, athletics, fishing and kayaking.

In the second part of Phase 1, shops may reopen from 11 May, a week earlier than the preliminary advice of the Experts Group responsible for the Exit Strategy (GEES).

“This allows all stores to open at the same time, without discrimination based on size or sector,” said Wilmès, but added that strict sanitary conditions will apply, for which the details will be defined in the coming days. Those conditions may include work organisation, welcoming customers and limiting access to stores to avoid overcrowding.

According to Wilmes, this could change if the state of health evolves negatively.

Close contact shops, like hairdressers, will not be opened yet.

Phase 2: 18 May

For daily life and gatherings, several possibilities will be studied from private meetings at home, the number of people authorised at weddings and funerals, the number of people who play sports together, the organisation of excursions to different places in the country and the possibility of going to a second residence.

Wilmès also announced the possibility of organising day trips to certain regions of the country, such as the Belgian Coast or the Ardennes.

For primary and secondary schools classes will resume, whereas certain classes, such as the diploma years, will be given priority.

Lessons will be given in smaller groups, with a maximum of 10 students per class, while it will be required to clean classrooms, reorganise the timetables and for students to wear masks. Children belonging to risk groups will have to stay at home. In kindergartens, classes are suspended until at least the end of May. 

The Flemish education sector reached an agreement on Wednesday (22 April) to partially reopen schools from 15 May as a pilot phase before the full resumption on 18 May. In the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, lessons will resume gradually and partially, subject to a consultation will take place on Saturday (25 April).

The catering industry, restaurants, bars and cafés will not reopen in May.

Phase 3: 8 June earliest

Phase 3 is still hypothetical and would start, at best, on 8 June with restaurants being gradually reopened, followed by cafes and bars – all under strict conditions, such as keeping social distance.

The same applies to summer travel, internships and tourist attractions.

Meanwhile, the government will also investigate the possibility of small-scale open-air events at this stage, while major events will remain prohibited until 31 August.

“Many are waiting for clear perspectives but it is impossible to offer guarantees, to answer all the uncertainties, because deconfinement largely depends on the evolution of the health situation and that nobody can predict with certainty what will be done tomorrow,” Wilmes concluded. “Nothing, nothing is set in stone, and certainly not the deadlines.”

>READ MORE about the overall situation in Belgium here.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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