Belgium’s Consultation Committee on Wednesday (14 April) decided to ‘cautiously’ loosen certain COVID-19 restrictions, including lifting a travel ban, reopening outdoor terraces for the hospitality sector and extending social bubbles.
“After all the obstacles and uncertainties of the past few months, the roll-out of the vaccination becomes a solid basis for the reopening,” Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said, calling the decisions a “cautious and realistic approach”.
“The face of the pandemic has changed, we are no longer fighting the same virus as a year ago, the variants are much more contagious and aggressive,” he said, after a four-week lockdown that has cut coronavirus infections but barely reduced pressure in hospitals.
Overview of adapted measures:
As of 19 April, non-essential travel abroad will again be possible, albeit strongly discouraged. The travel ban, which has been imposed since 27 January to curb the surge in coronavirus cases, has been repeatedly extended, prompting criticism from the European Commission, which has urged the government to reverse the restrictions on movements.
Anyone returning from a ‘red zone’ must obey a quarantine period of at least 7 days, taking tests on day 1 and day 7.
These will be policed on the basis of data in the Passenger Locator Form that each person arriving in Belgium must complete.
“I want to stress that this is really not the moment to start travelling. It is really not,” De Croo said, adding that this system will remain in place until the country can switch to using the EU’s Digital Green Certificates.
So far, there are no exceptions planned for vaccinated people.
Schools will also reopen with students in the second and third grades of secondary education (15-18) only being able to physically attend school half-time, with half-time distance learning still in place. Universities and colleges will move towards one day a week of in-person education and exams.
From 26 April, the social “outdoor bubble” will grow from 4 to 10 people, both in public and private spaces.
A reopening of non-grocery stores and the restart of non-medical contact professions such as hairdressers will take place. At the same time, pilot experiments will be carried out in the sport, cultural and event sector.
An agreement was reached on the hotel and catering industry, the main stumbling block in the past week’s discussions, with cafés and restaurants allowed to reopen terraces as of 8 May.
The existing night time curfew, meanwhile, will be replaced by a gathering ban from midnight to 5:00 am with a maximum of three people.
People will be able to receive a maximum of two close contacts at home from the same family at the same time.
If the vaccination rate of over 65s reaches 80% on May 10 (which is in line with forecasts), outdoor activities will be expanded, De Croo said.
The Belgian prime minister also indicated that in early June more culture and events could be possible outside, with more social contacts possible and cafés and restaurants potentially to open indoors.
A series of specific measures in Brussels will be discussed again in the coming days, explained the Minister-President of the Brussels Region, Rudi Vervoort.
The next Consultation Committee is scheduled for 23 April, which will likely discuss rules around the summer holidays.
Vaccination to be accelerated
The condition for further openings after May will depend on whether most over-65s will be vaccinated by then and whether the intensive care situation has returned to normal.
Belgium’s vaccination campaign will rely on “two major milestones” on the way to a potential complete reopening in summer.
“The first milestone is when seven out of ten people over 65 years old will have received their first vaccine dose, and two to three weeks will have seen the optimal effect on their immune system,” he said, adding this could be the case around 8 May.
The second milestone in the country’s vaccination campaign is expected when almost all over-65s and vulnerable people have been vaccinated, which according to De Croo, which could take place in early June.
“These are the last weeks, but they weigh the most,” De Croo said. “There is only one answer to all these questions: vaccination, vaccination, vaccination.”
More than 22,000 people have died from coronavirus in Belgium, among the world’s highest per-capita fatality rate.
Infections, which have decreased, remain above 3,000 per day and the reproduction rate of 1 indicates Belgium’s battle against the virus is finely balanced.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]