**This article is continuously updated with the latest developments.
Despite the EU recommendation to member states on lifting travel restrictions for 15 third countries from 1 July, it is not certain whether Belgium will follow it. Brussels will not open its borders to travellers from the 15 white-listed countries “at least until 7 July,” according to Belgian foreign minister Philippe Goffin.
Students, high-skilled workers, people working for international organisations and sailors will be included in the list of those who can travel.
Meanwhile, as a ministerial decree approving the next phase of relaxation of COVID-19 lockdown measures from 1 July has been published, all event organisers in Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia will be able to test their event for possible health risks online via the COVID Event Risk Model (CERM), the so-called “event matrix.”
The CERM was developed to facilitate the restart of the event sector and is applicable to all sporting, cultural, tourist or business events. The model was approved by GEES (the pandemic expert group that advises the government) and is based on 20 parameters to measure the safety risk.
As of Thursday (2 July), there are 61,598 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 9,761 reported deaths in Belgium. So far, 17,021 have recovered.
Investigating its COVID-19 response
The Belgian parliament has approved the creation of a special committee to investigate Belgium’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It will consist of 17 members and be assisted by four experts who have two months to prepare a preparatory report on the committee’s assignments so that they can start work immediately after the summer break.
If necessary, the committee could be transformed into a parliamentary committee of inquiry, if misconduct is identified.
Socialists, Liberals, Ecolo-Groen, CD&V, N-VA and DéFI voted in favour, while the far-right Vlaams Belang and leftist PVDA voted against because they demanded a full parliamentary investigation committee.
Also, after most stores were forced to close between 18 March and 11 May as part of the government’s far-reaching measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, a bill to suspend the obligation for businesses to close shop for one weekly rest day a week until the end of the year has been tabled by Flemish liberal party Open VLD.
Such a solution would not only have a financial benefit but would make it easier to guarantee social distancing between customers, the party argues.
Belgium was ranked worst out of 21 OECD members for its COVID-19 response, with a score of 2.11 out of 4, lower than Italy, Spain and UK, who all recorded a score of 2.22, according to a new international study by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).
The data was based on an assessment of three “quality of response” criteria: the number of tests, provision of non-COVID-19 healthcare and the number of above-average excess deaths.
In the study, Belgium received the highest score for its testing capacity but ranked the lowest score for its death rate.
However, while Belgium has the highest death rate per capita in the world, health officials frequently point out it is also one of the few countries counting untested deaths in care homes as COVID-19 deaths.
Even so, a majority of Belgians (71%) said they would be ready to undergo a second lockdown if the country was hit by a second wave of the pandemic, a new 7sur7 survey shows. Respondents in Flanders were less favourable (66%) to the measure than those in Brussels (75%) and Wallonia (78%).
Race to a vaccine
Belgium’s health minister Maggie De Block (Open VLD) has said she considers it “unreasonable” that four EU member states are negotiating to buy some 400 million of doses of a British-Swedish COVID-19 vaccine outside of the joint procurement initiative launched by the European Commission.
On Saturday, the German Ministry of Health announced that Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy have signed an agreement guaranteeing the supply to the EU of 300 million doses of a vaccine developed by the University of Oxford, whose CEO is a Belgian, and the company AstraZeneca, as soon as it is ready.
“By doing this you are weakening everyone: both the Commission’s overall initiative and your own position,” De Block retorted according to Le Soir.
Belgium’s National Security Council has agreed the country can go ahead with phase four of its lockdown measure exit plan from 1 July.
Social contacts will be extended to allow closer contact with 15 different people every week, instead of the previous 10.
Cultural activities can take place with an audience of up to 200 people indoors, subject to compliance with security measures. For outdoor events, 400 people will be allowed.
For those wanting to organise an event for more than 200 people from 1 July, a so-called event matrix provides eighteen criteria (for example whether it is a dynamic event or in one place, and whether or not food is provided). The checklist can then be used by the mayors to make an assessment and decide whether an event is allowed to take place.
Closing time for the catering industry remains 1 am.
Swimming pools, wellness centres, amusement parks, casinos and gaming halls can also reopen, and there is no longer a limit on the number of stalls allowed on markets, but social distance has to be kept at all times.
Wearing a face mask in public remains highly recommended. Although several of the country’s virologists support an obligation to wear a mask in shops, the National Security Council did not follow the experts’ suggestion.
Belgium entered phase 3 of deconfinement measures on 8 June, with a reopening of hotels, bars and restaurants, extended social life and eased tourism restrictions, the National Security Council (CNS) announced on 3 June.
“We started by prohibiting everything – it was confinement – then the exceptions added up over time. As of 8 June, we can reason starting with our freedoms, ” Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes said.
But Wilmes cautioned that “the virus remains with us, it still takes its toll and we must remain vigilant. This is why we must continue to ban certain activities.”
After seven weeks of “human and social sacrifices”, Belgium kicked-off 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).
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.”
“We can start the new phase because the criteria are favourable. Hospital admissions continue to decline, with only a third of the beds in the intensive care unit being occupied by COVID-19 patients,” PM Sophie Wilmes told reporters on 6 May.
The start of the deconfinement measures comes at a time when public support for lockdown measures is slipping, a current study carried out by the Ghent university shows.
The so-called “motivation barometer” dropped from 80.7% of people who said they would willingly follow the instructions, regardless of any possible fine or other sanction, at the beginning of the crisis to currently 55.4%.
“We saw what the first serious wave looked like. We have to be prepared for a second one, although we’ll try not to let it come to that,” she added. Previously, experts had insisted that “protective measures – testing and contact tracing – should be operational as soon as possible,” Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès (MR) confirmed.
Belgium lifted all restrictions on Monday, after months of only allowing essential movements in and out of the country.
However, due to the high per capita death numbers, Belgians themselves face some travel restrictions: Austria, Iceland, the United Kingdom and Estonia will welcome Belgian travellers under some conditions, such as a mandatory quarantine, while Bulgaria, Norway, Cyprus, Spain and Greece are not open so far.
Lufthansa-owned Brussels Airlines restarted operations to travellers with non-essential journeys this week as European internal borders reopened, and it already reported full planes after the first day.
The airline had 22 flights on 15 June, according to the company’s CEO, but a first passenger with coronavirus symptoms was refused at Brussels Airport, as thermal cameras determined that their body temperature was higher than 38 degrees. To guarantee the safety of passengers and staff, the body temperature of all passengers is checked before they are allowed to enter the terminal.
To promote domestic tourism, Belgium’s National Security Council decided during their weekend meeting (20-21 June) that Belgian citizens could apply for a free rail pass to promote tourism within the country and obtain get 12 free rides.
They can be spread across six months, with an allowance of two rides per month and will reportedly enter into effect from mid-August. The initiative had faced criticism by SNCB, Belgium’s national rail service, as the government had not consulted it, but ministers have now promised extra money to compensate for the loss of income during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Calls to poison control
Belgium’s Poison Control Centre has recorded an increase of 15% in the number of calls it receives since the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March, as people have started experimenting with hazardous substances.
“The consequences of the coronavirus crisis are making themselves known, according to our figures. Compared to the same period last year (April 2019) almost eight hundred more calls were handled,” said Patrick De Cock, communication coordinator of Belgium Poison Control Centre, in a statement.
Next phases of deconfinement
As planned in the country’s exit strategy, Belgium’s National Security Council has given the go-ahead for a series of new relaxations as of Monday (18 May), including the reopening of schools, hairdressers and even some social activities in an effort to relieve the battered economy.
Phase 3, which includes measures on tourism and the opening of cafes, bars and restaurants, “will not take place before 8 June”, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès told reporters upon announcing the new measures and emphasised that sporting and cultural events are prohibited until at least 30 June.
Highest death rate per capita in Europe
With around 11.5 million inhabitants, Belgium now has the highest death rate from COVID-19 in the EU, with an average of around 419 per one million inhabitants, now ahead of Spain at 409 per one million, the second highest in the EU.
Officials insist it is because they have been totally transparent with the data, as most official tallies probably reflect only a fraction of the actual number of infections, because many countries are testing only the most serious cases.
Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes had to explain why that was the case on Wednesday (15 April), and said the government “made the choice of full transparency when communicating deaths linked to COVID-19,” even if it resulted in “numbers that are sometimes overestimated.”
Unlike some countries, Belgium takes fully into account the dramatic situation in retirement homes. In the country’s more than 1,500 such facilities, the numbers include deaths that are considered linked to the coronavirus even if it has not been proven by tests, a choice not taken by many others.
“In Europe, no country counts like the others. We have the most detailed method,” Health Minister Maggie De Block told the television news channel LN24.
Lockdown and emergency measures
The Belgian National Security Council on 12 March had taken the first far-reaching measures to fight against the spread of the coronavirus, declaring a state of emergency over the entire country.
Under the emergency measures, the Belgian government decided to introduce entry and exit controls on non-essential movements to and from Belgium as of Friday (20 March), while all recreational and sporting events were cancelled or postponed, public places like restaurants, bars, cafés and discos are ordered to shut.
Schools remained as of 16 March, with a daycare service maintained for working parents with no other alternatives. Kindergartens, for their part, remaining open.
Shops offering basic goods such as pharmacies, and food markets will remain open as normal, she said. And other stores are allowed to stay open during the week, but must be closed on weekends.
On 6 April, Wilmès announced an expert group dubbed Exit Strategie, designed to develop a plan on how lockdown measures could be loosened in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the Belgian crisis centre launched a new interpretation of coronavirus guidelines.
Belgium’s National Security Council (CNS) on 5 April extended the coronavirus containment measures by two weeks until 3 May, with some minor of them being relaxed, to ensure the positive trend in a slowing number of cases to be secured.
While all previous measures remain in place, the latest extension comes after Belgian media reports suggested that over the Easter weekend Belgians started being less observant of the lockdown measures, with transport companies noting a rise in suspected non-essential travel, and police reporting a rise in lockdown violations and fines issued.
More on the different steps of the lockdown measures in the past weeks here:
- Belgium to relax social distancing rules, open shops from next week
- ‘Irresponsibly’ leaked paper on Belgian lockdown phase-out sparks criticism
- Belgium extends COVID-19 lockdown until 3 May, but relaxes some measures
- Belgium extends COVID-19 lockdown by two weeks until 19 April
- Belgium enters lockdown over coronavirus crisis until 5 April
Since the beginning of the crisis, the hashtag #StayHomeBelgium has dominated Belgian Twitter as concerned individuals were speaking out against the country’s initially slow coronavirus response.
After the first emergency measures were introduced, Belgians over the weekend had crossed the border into the Netherlands and Luxembourg, where at this point in time no laxer measures had been in place, to go shopping, drinking and dining, which prompted a furious response by government officials and opposition politicians.
Health minister De Block warned that “a virus does not respect a country’ frontiers”, calling the actions that had been taken a “shame”, while Flemish minister-president Jambon is also mayor of Brasschaat, a town very close to the Dutch border condemned it as “antisocial behaviour”.
New government with special powers
In mid-March, political parties inched toward forming a potential ‘corona government’ and agreed that the caretaker government under Sophie Wilmes (MR) should not be “destabilised” while Belgium is facing the pandemic, as the health crisis revived months of stalled talks in the linguistically and politically divided country.
The country has seen a small political breakthrough on Sunday (15 March), as the main political parties agreed to grant the current caretaker government under Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes special powers for the next six months to bridge the crisis. The bill was approved on Thursday (26 March) by Belgian lawmakers by 104 votes in favour, 8 against (PTB) and 16 abstentions (Vlaams Belang).
The “power of attorney”, a measure that has not been used for more than 20 years, is approved by a majority of lawmakers for a period of three months, renewable once.
This way, the Wilmès government – which has no majority in parliament – will be able to move much faster without asking parliament for permission every time to take coronavirus measures.
Wilmes’ mission powers, however, will be limited to taking measures to combat the coronavirus outbreak, both in terms of health and economic policy.
The European Commission approved a €4 million Belgian direct grant scheme to support coronavirus related research and development projects in the Brussels-Capital region on Monday (27 April).
Executive VP Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said that this €4 million Belgian scheme will “provide incentives to companies to direct their activities to research and production of certain products, like vaccines, drugs or disinfectants, or treatments, which are most crucial in the current circumstances.”
“Our work with member states continues and ensures that national support measures can be put in place in a coordinated and effective way, in line with EU rules.”
Just after the leadership decision, Belgium’s newly formed federal government agreed to provide €1 billion urgently to help hospitals face the coronavirus crisis as the situation in the coming days become “extremely intense” for healthcare services, it said on Friday (20 March).
Emergency moves to support the economy during the crisis would cost the federal government up to €10 billion, budget minister David Clarinval said.
More than 700 leaders of Belgium’s start-up scene have launched a call on the country’s federal and regional governments to support startups and scaleups with additional government aid to avoid their decline during and after the coronavirus pandemic.
Most restaurant and café operators (85%) expect to attract nearly 50% fewer customers when they reopen, according to a survey by the University of Gent.
Health sector under strain
Medical workers on the front lines of Belgium’s response to the coronavirus pandemic have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the shortage of protective gear and mouth masks in particular. Across the country, virologists had been calling on people to donate face masks to hospitals and health workers.
Two surgeons from the Hospital Saint-Pierre (ULB) in Brussels published a carte blanche to the attention of Belgian Prime Minister Wilmès over the weekend, sounding the alarm over the lack of medical and protective equipment to fight against the coronavirus. Wilmes responded with a letter of her own on Tuesday (24 March).
An order of 5 million masks placed by Belgium to make up for the shortage was expected to be delivered exclusively to hospitals and health workers.
“The first five million masks are divided between hospitals, triage points, fire brigade and ambulance providers. We hope to be able to distribute a new batch of the sterile masks to residential care centers, home nurses and anyone who comes into contact with patients,” De Block said in mid-March.
However, Belgian media reported on 15 March that the provider in Turkey was under fraud investigation, which poured cold water on the delivery, piling pressure on authorities to find another alternative.