Response to parliamentary questions on COVID-19 and on preparations for a second wave
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Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The improvement we've seen in the health situation in recent weeks isn't a given, as shown by the reproduction number, which has risen above 1 again.
One of the questions was about daily figures. I share your opinion entirely. I share your opinion, and we've asked [the Belgian federal public health institute] Sciensano to start providing us with daily figures again, to at least ensure that the experts have these at their disposal, because they really do need them.
In light of the virus's resurgence in some neighbouring countries and the increase in the number of infections detected in Belgium in recent days, we must take extra care.
This means, among other things, that the protective measures must be scrupulously followed. That's why, as you know, the Consultation Committee decided last Thursday to make wearing a face mask mandatory in shops and in many public places.
The trend in the health indicators, a better knowledge of the virus and the latest relaxations as part of the lifting of the lockdown are all factors that have led the experts to change their point of view. Social interactions are once again on the rise, and certain behaviours are gradually becoming more lax. This means we must be much, much more careful. The extension of the requirement to wear a face mask may help in this regard.
If further measures turn out to be necessary, we won't hesitate to make the appropriate decisions, as I've always said, whether that involves extending the requirement to wear a face mask to further settings or tightening the current measures in other ways.
We can't rule out a second wave, but we must do everything in our power to avoid it. We must also prepare as best we can in case it does unfortunately hit us – and planning ahead is definitely crucial.
I already spoke about this issue last week, but, given your questions, I'd like to reiterate certain aspects of my remarks back then.
The experience we've gained in recent months has been used to improve our response to the crisis at both federal and regional levels because, as you know, each level of power has a role to play in our very complex institutional framework.
The following steps have been taken at federal level:
- the hospital emergency plan has been fine-tuned;
- representatives of hospitals and healthcare institutions and general practitioners have also been consulted about the role of front-line health workers;we've ensured that our testing capacity has reached a steady rate of between 30,000 and 45,000 tests a day – I should remind you that we're among the world's top 10 countries when it comes to tests per million residents, and our testing capacity is expected to increase to 50,000 tests a day by October;
- measures have been taken to ensure that by the end of August, our strategic stock of masks will be 200 million surgical masks, 33 million FFP2-style masks and 5 million cloth masks, and I should repeat that this strategic stock comes on top of the stocks of equipment built up by healthcare providers.
Resurgence plans developed by the regions were discussed at a Risk Management Group meeting today, to ensure a level of consistency across the various regions.
Two lines of defence have been identified.
- The first involves enabling regional call centres to detect, trace and isolate individuals with COVID-19.
- The second is all about ensuring early detection of renewed virus outbreaks by drawing on reports from the field, for example from local authorities, supported by the health inspectorate of the relevant region and where appropriate by mobile teams with a view to quelling these outbreaks. New outbreaks can also be detected by Sciensano using the databases at its disposal.
In addition, we're working with the Exit Strategy Expert Group on a ratchet system which should make it possible to identify levels requiring special attention or posing a particular risk epidemiologically.
When it comes to local autonomy, the crisis centre's operational teams have prepared a roadmap setting out how the various services will be organised in the event of a resurgence. This should make it easier to make arrangements for the detection and management of clusters, including at regional, provincial or municipal levels.
I'd also remind you that the legislation on municipalities already allows mayors to take individual measures if necessary. Indeed, some mayors have already done so. And of course, as we've been trying to do since the start of the crisis, it's essential that these interventions be coordinated in their approach. All these points will be discussed at the National Security Council meeting on 23 July.
Much has been said about a single command structure – and that is indeed always very important in a crisis. But Belgium has an institutional structure in which competences are divided – that's just a fact. We could of course just express regret about that, or we could quite simply say we'll work with the system we have, which is exactly what we're doing, as you know. Many of your questions relate to regional competences. Anyway, we're a team, working together for the good of all those living in Belgium. Therefore, we've been trying, while respecting everyone's competences, to continue to work together – and I think I can say that's exactly what we've done. The important thing is not to spend hours on end discussing who's in charge of what. The important thing is that everyone lives up to their responsibilities and that we're determined to work together.
I also saw a comment in the press about collaboration between politicians and experts, and there's been a lot of talk about this subject. This rather pains me because the first thing we must bear in mind is the debt of gratitude we owe to each and every person who has rolled up their sleeves and done their bit during this crisis – each and every person at whatever level, in our shops, in the healthcare sector, mayors at local level, politicians at other levels, and also of course the experts. And I'd like to restate very clearly how grateful I am to the Exit Strategy Expert Group for taking the time, alongside their usual work and personal commitments, to help us through this crisis. The Exit Strategy Expert Group does indeed give us advice – that's what the group was created for – and it's up to politicians to make decisions, as that's what we were elected to do, and that's how things must continue to be. So instead of wasting our energy on finding out who said what, who thought what and how, and on bickering through the press, I prefer we use this energy, as we've done up to now, to seek solutions.
It's true that the issue of people returning from holidays must also be factored into our preparations for a second wave. In this context, as you know, colour codes have been established based on an analysis by [the evaluation unit] CELEVAL. So what is CELEVAL then, because people tend to forget? Well, CELEVAL is a group, which, while chaired by FPS Health, has both virologists and representatives of the federated entities among its members.
The criteria used by CELEVAL do indeed need to be fine-tuned further, and so yes, yesterday we and the National Security Council specifically asked the chair of CELEVAL to fine-tune those criteria, because we know that reports of infection rates are also affected by the relevant testing policy, meaning that this should be taken into account in the overall analyses. So while it isn't nice for any country to be singled out or to have regions or areas classified as 'red' zones under our system, or even have areas categorised as 'orange' zones, I can assure you that as far as we and the National Security Council are concerned, the health of the members of our society is our top priority, taking precedence over any other consideration.
So as you seem to find the procedures unclear, I'll remind you what they say.
When travellers are coming from a 'red' zone, they are indeed supposed to go into quarantine and be tested. When they're travelling from an 'orange' zone, well, that means it isn't red and isn't green but between the two, and so the same procedure is highly recommended. But when it's a 'red' zone, quarantine and testing are mandatory. They are mandatory, but as with everything when it comes to managing this crisis, we've taken into account collective intelligence – which we're using as our basis – and will continue to do so. Collective intelligence has enabled us to successfully ease the lockdown restrictions. We've been successful not because we set up checkpoints on every street corner, but because the members of our society understood the value of following the rules, and we're counting on everyone to continue doing so. Of course, checks must take place and must continue to take place.
As for the more specific matter of the Passenger Locator form, this form is of course being translated because I agree with you that while – having seen it myself – it isn't very complicated, I don't see why it should only exist in English and it ought to be translated.
As regards quarantine and the organisation of this and of tracing, as you know, these are regional competences and the regions have acted – and done so extremely fast – to put in place legal texts, which have either already been voted on (in the case of Flanders) or are in the process of being voted on (in Wallonia, the Brussels-Capital Region and the German-speaking Community).
As you know, since the start of the crisis, the development of the health situation has determined the pace of lockdown exit measures. We've seen a resurgence of the virus since the start of this month. That's why we're continuing to closely monitor that trend, especially in light of the launch of a new phase.
That's why, at yesterday's National Security Council meeting, we decided to assess next Thursday, 23 July, whether or not the epidemiological situation will allow us to take the next step, and therefore to launch phase 5.
Next week we'll have a better overview of the health situation. We'll then be able to see whether or not the increase in the number of infections witnessed in recent days is a trend that has continued. The aim is still to remain cautious and to prioritise the health of our society.
Another question was about the situation regarding children. You should know that we're particularly alert to that situation. This has been a very difficult time for some children. I think everyone knows children who've been very good at weathering this crisis and others who have had a very hard time. We're very alive to this issue. That's one of the reasons why we very quickly reopened schools for the youngest children, because they really needed it. That's also why we decided well ahead of time to allow holiday activity programmes and scout camps to go ahead too. This has of course been a very difficult period for everyone, especially for children. But I can tell you that I think this remains a major concern for everyone.
Just a quick last word if you don't mind, Mr Speaker, as I'm answering questions for the last time, perhaps not in my tenure as Prime Minister – as there might not be a different government in place by the time the recess ends – but in any case before the summer parliamentary break, even though it may not be much of a break for us personally. I'd like to thank parliamentarians for the sometimes vigorous and sometimes calmer exchanges, and for the support some of you have given us to a greater or lesser extent during the crisis. In any case, regardless of our ideological differences, I think that when it comes to the democratic parties at least, we're all committed to making sure Belgium thrives and we're all committed to making headway in this crisis and trying to get out of it as strong as possible because it's true we have suffered.
And of course I'd also like to thank the Chamber's staff for their efficiency and willingness to be of assistance. So it now only remains for me to wish you all a very pleasant parliamentary recess.