Answer to parliamentary questions on the National Security Council of 6 May
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Thank you, Mr. President,
Let me start with something that is unfortunately becoming a habit, i.e. the analysis of the evolution of epidemiological data.
- The virus’ reproduction rate continues to drop. That is fairly good news. At the beginning of the week, it was estimated at 0.6, compared to 0.79 10 days ago.
- The number of new hospital admissions recorded every day also continues to decline.
- And since last Sunday, less than a third of ICU beds is occupied.
- The number of occupied hospital beds has also been halved compared to the beginning of April, from 6,000 to about 3,000 beds.
- The number of deaths does indeed seem to be stabilising. All the lives we can save are victories, though they cannot alleviate the suffering of those who have lost a loved one.
As I said, these are positive developments, but we must continue to take the situation very seriously.
Thanks to everyone’s efforts and the professionalism of our nursing staff, it is now possible to ease the containment measures.
As far as the actual exit is concerned, we don't really refer to an “exit” as such. We prefer to call it “easing the containment" rather than "exit":
- This better reflects the phases of the process;
- We will regain our freedom, slowly and step by step as the healthcare situation improves.
Let me remind you that on Monday, we entered the first phase of the exit plan, restarting part of our economy.
- And I would also like to say that there are jobs behind these companies and stores that have been able to resume their activities. And behind those jobs are women and men who want to develop themselves and, simply put, also want to earn their living.
(NSC of 06.05)
On the basis of the evolution of the health situation and other indicators such as the availability of means of protection and the operability of testing and tracing, which I will come back to later, the experts gave the green light to start the next phase of the exit plan.
We know it's hard, even unbearable, that we can't see our loved ones. We understand this emotional distress and we share it.
- That is why the National Security Council has decided to allow a further expansion of social contacts as of next Sunday. As a reminder, and this is also very important: at present it is possible to meet two people - always the same - for a walk. I've also heard the phrase "a little walk." That's probably a new word in the Dutch dictionary, for those who followed the press conference. For a walk, or to do sports together. This will still be possible, even for the very youngest of us.
- From 10 May, everyone can receive a maximum of 4 people at home, always the same people and subject to certain conditions to limit the risks.
- We realize that choices have to be made. We know choosing is difficult. But we wanted to offer this opportunity.
- To limit the number of contacts and to prevent the spread of the virus, these contacts will have to be limited to the same people.
- The social contract therefore requires that the persons invited undertake to visit each other alone.
- It is and remains important for everyone to keep a safe distance, this is still key for our health.
- It is obvious that the rules of the exit will always be more complicated than those of a simple lockdown. That is why we must be able to count on everyone's sense of citizenship and responsibility. These are key elements in the exit strategy.
- This does not mean, Mrs Fonck, that all responsibility for the current situation is placed with the citizens, nor that the Belgian people would not be able to understand that by following the rules, they guarantee us two things. Not only their own safety and the safety of their loved ones, but also the preservation of the little bit of freedom that we now have and that we would like to expand further.
- This system should also make it easier to trace the contacts that have taken place between people if one of them tests positive for Covid-19.
- Indeed, we will continue to look at how we can expand social contacts during each subsequent phase. However, according to the virologists, this will not be possible before 18 May.
You know that on the 11th of May, shops can also reopen, even under strict conditions. That brings me, of course, to the question of markets. I understand the questions about this topic.
Markets cannot reopen at this stage. Only individual market stalls, i.e. individual food and non-food stallholders, will be allowed in their usual place, with the permission of the local authorities. And I understand the disappointment this causes. We have an explanation for this, which is never complete, but at least in part explains the choice.
First of all:
- The exit is a step-by-step process. And it is true that with each step we create new opportunities. It is true that each step creates new opportunities for some, but not for everyone. And I understand that those who have to wait another week considers this to be unfair.
- But it must also be understood that we cannot open up all avenues at the same time, even if one activity in itself does not entail more intrinsic risks than another that is already permitted. What we cannot allow at the moment, and the issue here is that the number of contacts would multiply. We have the same problems with museums, which can start organising themselves now if they want to, but they are not yet allowed to open, and we hope that this will be possible in a practical way.
- With regard to the resumption of markets, I would also like to point out that the municipal authorities have already today been fully mobilised to organise the reopening of the stores under the best possible conditions. This takes a lot of energy from them. There are also municipalities, as you said, that distribute masks. Because they want to do the same for their fellow citizens. So everyone is doing their part to manage this crisis. I think reopening the markets also requires some organisation. We have to give them time to do that.
- And I can confirm that it is indeed the intention to create the conditions for the reopening of the markets by 18 May.
As you can see, we are moving forward step by step, with caution and depending on how the health situation evolves. And I would like to remind you that nothing is certain and that, if necessary, we can always dial back the easing out measures taken.
And yes, the next phase, phase 2, currently scheduled for 18 May, may bring further easing. I am thinking, for example, of the reopening of the markets, as just mentioned, and of the contact professions, museums and animal parks, and the resumption of open-air sports training. But also, and this was a question from Mr. Verherstraeten, the number of people who can be present at a funeral or a wedding. These are also very important moments in people's lives.
- Although it is important to offer perspectives, I would like to remind you that the situation in which we find ourselves is unprecedented and that the epidemic uncertainty prevents us from giving the clarity we hope for.
As far as masks are concerned, as you know, wearing mouth and nose protection is mandatory or recommended under certain circumstances:
- It is mandatory in public transport and airports, at work when safe distances cannot be maintained and in schools, at least for pupils over 12 years of age and staff throughout the day;
- It is strongly recommended from 11 May as part of the reopening of the shops;
- And again, I repeat, I repeat. The best way to protect oneself is to limit one's contacts and observe a safe distance.
All levels of government are making every effort to provide every citizen with free mouth nose protection. The goal is to activate all possible channels.
The federal government supports this strategy by supporting the regions through a number of initiatives, which I would like to repeat:
I hear Mr Prévot's accusation from the PS against the federal government. However, I would like to remind you that the Federal Government does share this common desire of the municipalities, the cities, the regional level and also the communities in support of the regional level, which is responsible for prevention, do not forget that. So, yes, we want to provide this support.
And how do we intend to provide this support? By offering masks, which we've already ordered:
- 12 million fabric masks that will arrive by the end of the month. Why fabric masks? Because we know that the crisis will last for a long time and we prefer durable masks.
- We also ordered 22 million filters, which increase the protection provided by the homemade masks.
- Pharmacies and shops are also allowed to sell surgical masks to citizens.
- First, a word about the pharmacies, who I think we should also thank. For their commitment and professionalism, at all times of course, but certainly during this crisis. The advice they give is invaluable.
- Coming back to this decision, it is based on the fact that there is no shortage on the market at present. Let me remind you that the inter-federal strategic stockpile now includes nearly 40 million surgical masks reserved for health and safety personnel. We still have 40 million masks in stock. 40 million masks are available on request.
- And it is true that supermarkets are committed to ordering 5 million surgical masks per week for the federal or inter-federal stock, in addition to what the federal government does. And you can see that this opening also makes it possible to replenish our own reserve.
- Should the health situation so require, the supermarkets have committed to selling their entire reserve to the Belgian government.
- As for the quality of the masks sold in the shop, these are surgical masks of varying quality, all of which meet the standards of the Federal Agency for Medicines and Health Products. These masks are checked twice, in the country of "departure" and on arrival in Belgium by customs.
- So, is it new that supermarkets are allowed to sell masks? No.
- This is not an unprecedented privilege, as it already existed before the Royal Decree of 23 March. Nevertheless, the federal government and the industry, as in other countries, decided to work together in the framework of the exit strategy and the necessary general provision of protective masks for citizens, and when we abolished this Royal Decree, we simply returned to a situation that existed before, i.e. that supermarkets were also allowed to sell masks. We simply gave them back the opportunity we took away from them. And as for the fact that there are all kinds of masks available on the market, I personally do not think we can blame the government for making these kinds of decisions, because there was criticism beforehand that there weren't enough.
- And I remind you that all of this is done within the specific framework of an activated, reinforced federal reserve dedicated to nurses.
- Then there is the question of the reduction in VAT collected. It is already fixed at 6%.
- I am certainly sensitive to the question of the price of the masks. It is indeed unacceptable that some people shamelessly take advantage of the situation. Having said that, let's get to the point, we are in a global market, the law of supply and demand is a basic economic principle. You may not like it, but pretending this is different would also be lying to the people.
As far as the tests are concerned, it should be noted that 500,000 tests have already been performed in Belgium. 500,000 tests have been performed on our territory. We are in the top 3 of European countries in terms of testing the population.
We are always compared with large countries that come out positive because of their level of testing. And I have to say, without quoting, we will come out above that test level. Is that enough? Has everyone been tested yet? Are 11.5 million people tested in Belgium? No, just like in other countries. Is it necessary to expand the testing capacity? Sure. We are now at a testing capacity of 25,000 and we intend to increase it - this is also subject to conditions - namely to extend the rules on who can be tested. They have already been extended once, and we hope they can be extended even further.
Thank you for your attention.