Response to parliamentary questions
Check against delivery
Meeting of the National Security Council on 3 June 2020 – support measures for the hospitality industry
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Various sectors and industries are affected by the resumption in activity envisaged in phase 3 of the lockdown exit plan, chief among them the hospitality industry and the cultural and sports sectors.
I'm not going to repeat here all the decisions set out yesterday, but I will focus on some specific details that have been asked about.
As regards the hospitality industry, as I said yesterday, with a few exceptions it can start operating again on 8 June.
A protocol negotiated with representatives of the industry has been implemented to allow this to happen while safeguarding both staff and customers. This protocol is included in a best practices handbook, which was published today. Since the initial version of the protocol, we have taken into account feasibility on the ground and the need to rationalise the rules enough to ensure that people will still want to go to restaurants while also protecting the health of everyone in Belgium, as that remains our primary duty.
So we know that the required adjustments will demand an effort from the sector. We don't expect the rules that will be in force to affect patrons' enjoyment of these establishments. The fact remains, though, that compliance with these measures is essential to the health of other members of our society, the health of customers and the health of those who work in the sector.
However, I'm delighted to hear that according to a survey carried out by Edenred, 8 out of 10 Belgians intend to return to cafés or restaurants as soon as they reopen. I anticipate being among them. I'm still working out who'll be in my expanded 'bubble', but I'll definitely be in one of these establishments on Monday, if only to provide moral support.
As for the cultural sector, to answer your question, Mr Briers, the first rule is all about the need to respect social distancing.
Of course, it was also vital to set a limit to avoid too many people being in the same place at the same time, and this is also connected to the organiser's ability to ensure that people can arrive and leave safely.
Yes, we must at all times see to it that the various cultural organisations that can reopen are given the chance to get through this crisis. At the same time, it should be clear that the 200-person limit that will apply from 1 July covers all activities attracting an audience.
So now people are raising the issue of mass gatherings. And if you don't mind me saying, I find this rather incredible. Frankly, to come here and suggest that we would use the COVID-19 crisis and the misery this has inflicted on our society to avoid social disputes even though consultation and social dialogue are fully operational is, I believe, not only incredible but also unseemly.
The gatherings you're talking about can sometimes involve thousands of people: thousands of people who are unable to protect each other properly through social distancing when they're together – thousands of people who, if they were to be infected at some point, wouldn't know where to turn to do testing and tracing when we all know very well that this is absolutely essential. And while I understand people's desire to express their feelings, there is also the need to respect nursing staff and strive to avoid exposing them to a new wave. Anyone who says they're standing up for them should consider that too.
Since we're talking comparisons, returning to this well-rehearsed issue of 200 people, I would also like to point out that in Luxembourg, audience numbers are restricted to 30 for cultural activities, and this limit will be increased to 100 on 1 July.
So obviously we can always make comparisons with numbers that support our point, but we can also look around at our closest neighbours. And if we look around, we can see that the situation in the Netherlands is similar. Currently, a limit of 30 applies there, with this due to rise to 100 when restrictions are next loosened.
Therefore, we must always be careful when drawing comparisons because they aren't only the result of the epidemiological situation. Naturally, they're also the effect of the balance struck and the strategies developed by each country domestically.
As regards monitoring, this must always be carried out, otherwise it would be futile to set any rules. That said, such monitoring must not be excessive, which is why we must amend the Ministerial Decree. The rules will then be set out very clearly.
Phase 3 of the lockdown exit plan that was set out yesterday is significant, given the great expectations surrounding it. We're aware that the weeks ahead may still be difficult for those who have had to suspend business due to the lockdown measures.
We also know that although people are now allowed to resume business, the conditions imposed on them will have an impact on their turnover.
This applies not only to the hospitality and events industries and the cultural sector, for example, but also to sectors that were able to get up and running again before now.
To support those sectors that were forced to shut down, we have, as you know, already adopted two components of the Federal Social and Economic Protection Plan.
These first two components contain measures which apply to all sectors, so to everyone, and which will therefore also benefit the hospitality sector, such as the entitlement to a replacement income and social security cover, temporary unemployment and deferral of payments.
And yes, the third component was prepared by the government and presented last Saturday to the 10 chairmen of parties backing the special powers decrees. It has three parts.
- First, there are the measures already in force, such as temporary unemployment, which I just mentioned and which may be extended until 31 August.
- Second, there are new cross-cutting measures, such as reductions in withholding tax for businesses, aiming to encourage those who have been temporarily unemployed to return to work.
- Third, there are measures targeting the hardest-hit sectors and industries.
Among the new sectoral measures, some do indeed directly target the hospitality industry, which we know has been particularly impacted, but, I repeat, it is not the only one. Let me cite three examples:
- the reduction in VAT from 12 to 6% on restaurant and catering services and from 21 to 6% on non-alcoholic drinks;
- the increase in deductibility to 100% of restaurant expenses; and
- an entitlement to a replacement income and social security cover, centred on the sectors and industries facing particular difficulties, such as hospitality.
So while it is true that these measures were approved at government level last week, they must indeed still be discussed with the 10 parties to secure the greatest possible majority support here within this parliament – so yes, Mr Laaouej, to address the point you have made extensively, these discussions will take place within this parliament.
A framework must first be devised for these discussions, so this Saturday we'll be meeting the chairmen of the parties supporting this government with a view, I hope, to coming up with a support plan as soon as possible.
I reiterate that as far as the recovery is concerned, the objective is still to be able to discuss all this as part of the formation of a government enjoying a majority in the Chamber – a wish I repeat time and again.
Fight against racism
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
As I said yesterday after the meeting of the National Security Council, I realise just how strongly the current situation in the United States has affected people. George Floyd's last words resonate with all of us. They arouse emotion, indignation, anger, even revolt.
George Floyd has, unbeknownst to him at the time, become a symbol: a symbol of the fight against racism and also, more broadly, the fight against violence and hatred directed at others.
The demonstrations currently going on in the United States have given rise to other expressions of solidarity around the world, including in Belgium.
And I share this great desire to continue combating – even more fervently than before – racism and violence in all their forms, which can unfortunately still be found in every part of the world – and yes, you're right: that includes Belgium.
However, I must remind you that in Belgium we have a whole range of legislation to combat racism. For a number of years now, our country has had a clear legal framework in terms of countering racism and discrimination.
These aspects are covered by several different laws. Anyone who believes they've been the target of racism or discrimination is encouraged to file a complaint.
More specifically, Unia – as an independent public institution that combats discrimination and promotes equal opportunities – also plays a role in the fight against discrimination or racism perpetrated by or against the police, because yes, victims of racism are everywhere.
Unia performs this task by, for example, advising and guiding those who are victims of discrimination and by providing police officers with training on anti-discrimination legislation.
As well as the usual forms of legal recourse, victims can file a complaint with the body specifically responsible for monitoring the police, Standing Committee P, the internal monitoring service or the General Inspectorate.
Here in January I announced the creation of an interministerial conference for combating racism, in response to the incidents that occurred in Bilzen and De Panne. This was actually implemented after the Consultation Committee granted its approval on 19 February, so just before the onset of the coronavirus crisis.
The main objective of this interministerial conference is to promote the coordination, at various levels of power, of initiatives taken to combat racism in the broad sense.
It's absolutely vital that we pursue a coordinated policy at federal, regional and community levels to ensure that our actions achieve actual results. This forum can also act as an advisory body when drafting a future national plan for combating racism, which is already in preparation.
Naturally, the proposals put forward by Ms Kitir, for example, can also be examined in this regard. But I would also like to mention that Parliament, too, can be an appropriate place for taking such initiatives.
The coronavirus crisis has slowed the progress of this process. This means that the representatives of the federal government and the federated entities have yet to be appointed by a Consultation Committee. Only then can an interministerial conference be held. The objective is to take all the steps required as quickly as possible so that this conference can be held as soon as possible, in cooperation with Ms Muylle of course.
I also realise that some people would like to be able to protest in Belgium in response to recent events.
Yesterday, I already called on Belgians who wanted or would like to demonstrate to bear in mind the impact such gatherings could have on the spread of the epidemic and therefore on the whole population.
The latest reports suggest that more than 5,000 people plan to protest on Sunday.
I also hear that Mr Close, the Mayor of Brussels, is having discussions with the organisers. I sincerely hope that together, they will find an alternative to a demonstration, as a mass gathering would not only run counter to the decisions that were made to protect the population from the coronavirus – and not to mute this protest – but would also put its participants at great risk.
As I've said, I think there's also a need to show respect for our nursing staff.