‘Irresponsibly’ leaked paper on Belgian lockdown phase-out sparks criticism

People wearing face masks walk in Brussels, Belgium, 24 March 2020. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

Belgian experts tasked with devising the country’s lockdown exit strategy have proposed reopening some shops, partially relaxing some restrictions on gatherings and outdoor activities from 3 May and to resume school from 18 May, according to draft recommendations obtained by Le Soir.

The draft proposal by the Group of Experts for an Exit Strategy (GEES) is to be considered by Belgium’s National Security Council who tasked the experts with coming up with guidelines ahead of a meeting this Friday regarding the country’s plan for the end of lockdown measures.

Partial ease for schools, shops, gatherings?

In the leaked draft, the experts suggest reopening some shops from 4 May to avoid “unfair competition” from big stores, most of which also sell products other than just basic necessities.

The experts also want “a perspective” to be given to the hospitality sector as the draft foresees restaurants and cafes will remain closed for some time.

They also suggest to loosen social distancing where it is possible and recommend to allow people meet with family or close friends one night a week, in groups of no more than 10 (it has to be the same 10 people only). It is unclear, how this is meant to be controlled.

Parks and playgrounds would reopen and certain outdoor sports would be allowed.

Belgium extends COVID-19 lockdown until 3 May, but relaxes some measures

Belgium’s National Security Council (CNS) on Wednesday (15 April) extended the coronavirus containment measures by two weeks until 3 May. Despite a very slow decline in numbers, it is not yet clear when normality can being to return.

Additionally, the National Security Council is expected to give clarity on the reopening of schools, which the experts proposed to start from 18 May.

However, such a decision requires more discussion as education is a regional competence.

A group of education stakeholders, including ministers, organizing authorities and unions, from Wallonia-Brussels met on Wednesday (22 April) afternoon to discuss the conditions for a possible return to school. Among the sanitary conditions required, it is planned to limit the number of students per class to 10 and require all students to wear a mask.

The Flemish education sector reached an agreement on Wednesday to partially reopen schools from 15 May.

Although no formal decision has been taken, it seems highly likely – provided that the National Security Council agrees and health standards are met – that a partial recovery will be organized on 18 May.

Politicians and experts call leak ‘irresponsible’

Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès expressed disappointment at the leaking of the recommendations.

“We regret this leak. The challenges that lie ahead are too great to present unvalidated information lightly,” Wilmès’ cabinet explained according to Belga News agency.

“Meetings are still ongoing, including at the level of the experts themselves. Extreme caution is therefore required. The answers will come on Friday; not before,” it added.

“Leaking such a document is criminal,” said Groen/Ecolo leader Kristof Calvo on Twitter, adding that he was asking the Prime Minister to investigate the leak.

Meanwhile, Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst, part of the advisory group on the recommendations, called the leak “irresponsible, reprehensible and almost criminal.”

“This is one of the versions that has been on the table for the past few weeks. Things have been deleted and things have been added. This has not been fully checked with politicians and it is certainly not the final result of the expert group,” he told De Morgen.

“This is not a game. Whoever leaked this is playing with people’s lives,” Van Ranst said.

“I put my hand in the fire: this leak does not come from the expert group. This document has been shared with people from political circles and suddenly it is stated in a French-language newspaper. This is very irresponsible, we are not going to respond to this substantively,” he concluded.

His colleague on the GEES, virologist Steven Van Gucht told VRT Niews that “the leaked advice from the expert group was not yet really the advice. It was the beginning of a document that was still very hard worked on.”

>READ MORE about the overall situation in Belgium here.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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