Answer to parliamentary questions on exit strategy
Check against delivery.
Thank you, Mr. President,
Since the start of the crisis, we have had one priority: to limit and reduce the spread of the virus. Health first.
The measures are bearing fruit. We can see that in the reproduction rate of the coronavirus, which now stands at 0.79. This means that, on average, every sick person is infecting less than one other person.
The trend of hospital admissions is also flattening, and so we have avoided the main threat: overburdening our hospitals. The occupancy rate of the intensive care units dedicated to Covid-19 has in fact never exceeded 58%. It currently stands at 36%.
We also see the number of deaths in hospitals stabilising. And we all realize that every death is very painful for the families and loved ones of the victims. Our thoughts go out to them every day.
The positive developments I have outlined have been possible thanks to the discipline of the vast majority of Belgians and the dedication of the medical staff. And I want to thank them again for that.
Last Friday, the National Security Council, enlarged to include the minister-presidents, agreed on a roadmap based on the advice of the group of experts in charge of the exit strategy, the GEES.
The announcement following this NSC was criticised. We have to listen to this criticism and accept it. We have to take it into account in the future.
I would just like to point out that the exit strategy is a delicate and complex operation, where the whole functioning of our society has to be reinvented and at the same time the health of our population has to be safeguarded.
I also wish to tell you that the time of the press conference was never announced.
It is customary in Belgium that when political decisions are taken, these are announced immediately. This is probably due to the fact that even if no decisions have been made, some people still manage to comment on them.
The Inner Cabinet met yesterday with the minister-presidents of the regions and communities and the experts of the GEES.
These experts have clarified that the current evolution of the epidemic allows for phase 1A of the exit plan to be activated as planned.
This green light has been given considering:
- (1) the number of new hospital admissions per day;
- (2) the average growth rate of new hospital admissions in the last 7 days;
- (3) the number of beds available in intensive care units;
- (4) but also the availability of means of protection
- (6) testing and (7) tracing
The experts also insisted that the aspects relating to personal protection, testing and tracing should be further developed in the week of 4 May.
It is also the intention over time to refine monitoring with the number of potentially ill Covid-19 patients reported by general practitioners in order to enable earlier monitoring.
Monitoring is essential because it determines the transition from one phase of the exit plan to the next.
I would like to remind you that, depending on the development of the health situation, we may have to take a step back. It is also possible, if necessary, to postpone the transition to a new phase.
So, on 4 May, we will enter phase 1A. Specifically, this means:
- A resumption of economic activity between professionals and companies;
- The reopening of the fabric and yarn shops;
- Working from home is still the standard. Maintaining a safe distance at work must be respected. However, compensatory measures are allowed.
I understand that this can bring fear. We have to make sure it is safe to go back to work.
This is why the Group of Ten has adopted a general guide to good practices which provides a reference for a gradual economic recovery in healthy and safe conditions for all.
This document, which has been approved by the social partners, is being distributed to the joint committees within the industries. Those who have already developed their own safety protocols will be able to supplement them on the basis of this generic guide. And since these protocols will be concluded in the form of collective labour agreements (CLAs), they will apply.
The social inspectors of the Directorate-General of Monitoring Well-being at Work of the Federal Public Service Employment are responsible for informing and guiding employers and employees and, in accordance with the Social Penal Code, for monitoring compliance with the applicable obligations within companies.
In addition to the specific measures that will be taken at the level of industries and companies on the basis of this guide that I have just been talking about, it goes without saying that the legislation for the protection of employees applies.
I repeat that it is in everyone's interest to ensure that good practices are followed, to prevent the further spread of the virus. It is in the interests of employees and, of course, of employers as well.
From 4 May, wearing a mouth and nose cover is mandatory on public transport for all passengers aged 12 and over. It is also recommended in public areas and in the workplace if a safe distance cannot be guaranteed.
All forms of protection - face masks or other alternatives to cover the mouth and nose, such as a scarf or bandana - are also accepted.
The strategy is to combine efforts to support the Regions, which are competent in this area, and to ensure that every citizen receives at least one standardised fabric mask covering the mouth and nose, free of charge.
In this respect, the Federal Government will:
- Provide one fabric mask per person.
- In addition, 22 million fabric filters, i.e. 2 per citizen, have been ordered to be place in masks that have been purchased or homemade.
We continue to work on other measures, in addition to those already in place, which will quickly provide Belgians with good protection.
Given people's expectations, it is indeed important, although this aspect does not fall within our remit, for all policy levels to continue to explore additional opportunities.
I would also like to specify that - according to the information I have received - the healthcare sector is well supplied, and that we still have a large strategic stock for workers in that sector.
Some are suggesting that the economy should take precedence over the human aspect in the exit strategy.
This binary vision that juxtaposes economy and human health is a caricature to me.
Behind the shops and businesses that are allowed to open, there are men and women who want to get out and back to work, and to resume their lives.
I am still convinced that work can be a factor of development, even under difficult circumstances.
On the other hand, I know and I understand that we all want to see our loved ones again. So do I. And we are taking that into account.
I heard the question about the leaked GEES document on the exit strategy. It was a preliminary text. And it did indeed say that family gatherings of 10 people would be possible. But the experts of the GEES have changed their minds, as they are perfectly entitled to, because they thought it was too general and it was not safe for people. The situation with the leak has created false hope among the population, which I regret.
Incidentally, I would like to remind you that even before we enter phase 1A, there are different ways to see friends and family. I know it's not enough. Of course it's not enough. But we have no choice. The thing is, we're in the situation we're in. It's not a choice. It's really not a choice. I would like people to at least be aware of that, no matter how critical they may be about this government.
- You can, and I think we should repeat this, go to people to provide help or to visit a person living on their own who can't get out of the house. It's been that way since the beginning, fortunately.
- As of recently, you can also visit family members living in residential care centres if all safety precautions have been taken. And we see that this is already the case in a number of residential care centres in Brussels and Wallonia. And again, all the better!
- You are also allowed to go walking and play sports together with one person - always the same person, that is - who does not live under the same roof.
- And from 4 May, this will be extended to two people.
Is that enough? Will we be satisfied with this? Probably not. But again, we are facing Covid-19 and the virus isn't pulling any punches.
I repeat. We miss our parents, of course we miss our parents. But Covid-19 doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. We have to pay extra attention to the generations around us, as they are hit by Covid-19 much harder and develop more severe symptoms. And that is our responsibility, too. To protect those people and all the other weaker members of our society.
The social measures that you have talked about, Mr. Gilkinet, are indeed in the GEES report. They have a fairly broad scope. They have to be applied.
And so Minister Muylle and Minister Ducarme are talking about these social measures, with the members of the GEES. And, no, we did not have an NSC meeting planned this week, so we had no meeting to cancel.
Testing and tracing will play an essential role in the progressive reduction of containment measures.
Its magnitude will have a direct impact on our ability to reduce the risk of a resurgence of the virus.
As far as testing is concerned: the number of PCR tests has been drastically increased. The analysis confirms that we are now, on average, performing more than 15,000 tests per day.
Our screening capacity is even higher, currently standing at 25,000 tests.
As far as the serological tests are concerned: these tests determine whether a person has ever been infected with the virus and has developed antibodies.
As announced, we were also able to secure 50,000 quick tests in April. This means that the laboratories already have access to that volume. And this provides us with some "insurance". And the aim is to have 900,000 quick tests in May and 3 million in June. These tests will be distributed according to Sciensano's recommendations.
Testing is indeed fundamental to enable tracing. Again, although tracing is a regional competence, the federal government will support what has already been rolled out, as is quite normal.
Tracing makes it possible to make a diagnosis in patients who would otherwise not spontaneously come in for a test or only when it’s too late. Again, the goal is to prevent possible chains of virus transmission.
A series of decisions were taken yesterday at the Interministerial Conference on Public Health:
- The Interfederal Committee for Testing and Contact Tracing was officially launched on 24 April.
- The start-up phase for the contact tracing will start on 4 May.
- To this end, call centres are currently being set up, and the people charged with this tracing are being trained. Others will be recruited by the federated entities because, I repeat, this falls within their remit.
- For its part, the Federal Government is finalising the specific legal framework to ensure the protection of privacy, given that a database will be used for the call centre.
And as far as the development of an app is concerned, a bill to regulate the development of such an app will soon be submitted to the Chamber at the request of the federated entities. And once again, it will be the Regions that will have to decide whether or not to use this possibility. Of course, I have no doubt they will do so in consultation with the federal government, as we have decided to join forces in the fight against Covid-19.
Finally, I turn to what is happening at the European level.
At the last European Council meeting, several Member States asked the Commission to make recommendations on intra-European travel, taking into account the gradual lifting of travel restrictions by Member States.
The highest possible level of cooperation in this respect within the Schengen area and beyond is indeed desirable.
Belgium fully supports this request. We believe that the free movement of goods and services must remain absolutely guaranteed. Restrictions on the movement of people must certainly be coordinated and not lifted too soon so that we can continue to monitor the health situation.
Thank you for your attention.