Response to parliamentary questions on the decisions of the National Security Council of 24 June
Check against delivery.
Thank you, Mr. President,
The positive trends in healthcare data do indeed allow us to move to phase 4 on 1 July, with the prospect of further easing.
But it is always still possible that we will have to dial back measures. We must never forget this.
Regarding the gatherings of large groups, because there were some questions about this. The gatherings we saw last weekend or a few weeks ago are not without consequences.
Of course, there are many reasons to celebrate or to get together, but by participating in such gatherings, people present compromised the efforts everyone has made in recent months.
The rules of the National Security Council are very clear.
By ignoring them, these people have endangered their own health, but also, and especially, that of their loved ones.
This behaviour can also give the impression that all risk has gone. It has also generated anger and frustration among those who have been on the front line since the beginning of the crisis, and also among those who do strictly follow the guidelines.
Although the trends are positive, as I have already indicated, the coronavirus continues to claim lives every day.
I therefore call upon everyone to show a sense of civic duty, responsibility, but also solidarity with those who are most vulnerable. The police also have an important role to play there. Either by trying to avoid such situations by being present or by issuing fines.
In any case, this is not an easy situation. But to those who come here and say that such gatherings are the result of measures not being clear, I ask that they try and explain this to everyone who is following the rules, without issue. Because, frankly, this is a small step too far. If you need clarity, I will say it again: this kind of gathering is not only illegal, but also dangerous. I think this is as clear as it gets.
The new outbreaks that have occurred in certain countries, both near and far, should indeed cause us to be very careful.
Although more things are allowed now, we have to strictly comply with what is still illegal.
The so-called barrier gestures remain mandatory. For everyone's sake.
As has been the case since the start of the crisis, epidemiological monitoring will continue to be our guiding principle in the exit process. Yes, we value people's health above all else.
If the trends remain positive, other restrictions can be lifted.
And if, unfortunately, the virus were to spread again, we will have to strengthen certain safety measures.
And in that case, wearing masks could indeed be made mandatory in busy public places.
And that is exactly what the GEES experts recommend in their report. You did not get this report yet, so I'll read it to you. Sorry, but it's in English, I quote: "If the virus were to circulate more over a prolonged period of time and/or in indoor activities with a larger audience, the mandatory use of masks indoors and for large groups of people would be necessary"
So, the GEES report does not contain any requirement for wearing face masks at this time. And you will be able to see this for yourself when you read the report, which will be available online next Monday.
And the NSC always bases its recommendations on the GEES reports. It is true that it is the NSC which ultimately decides. Which makes the calls. But it relies primarily on the reports. And those reports are approved by all GEES members without exception, including those who express different opinions in tweets or interviews. And that is a choice and above all, an individual freedom. So this is not a reproach, just a statement.
It is therefore important to specify that we obviously want to identify an epidemiological threshold above which wearing masks would become mandatory in crowded public places. After all, the virus' so-called reproduction rate, the R0, must not be the only indicator for determining how the health situation evolves, and certainly not when hospital admissions are very low.
And we want to act, not when it is too late, as some have said, but when it is necessary. And of course without waiting for the second wave. The aim is to take action to counteract this second wave and make sure it is avoided.
There is also talk, and you heard this in what I told you in the GEES report, of identifying the particular circumstances in which the wearing of masks could also be made compulsory, for example during very large gatherings.
The National Security Council and the group of experts share this analysis and this desire. The thought process is underway.
And I would like to remind you that in the meantime, wearing masks is mandatory under certain circumstances and still strongly recommended. And this strong recommendation has so far been followed well by the population. So far, the population, Belgians in general, all those who live in Belgium, have followed the recommendations well enough to see that the virus' transmission rate is decreasing from day to day. And as Mr Verherstraeten said today: let them reap the benefits of their exemplary behaviour, it gives them a little more freedom today. A little more freedom, but with due regard for health measures.
There are currently discussions at the EU level on opening the external borders. They are not yet open, except for essential trips. And there's the issue of a quarantine period, which is an important one. But there is no point in discussing this topic today without having a European approach on the table.
With regard to communication, I agree. It is very important that we continue to communicate to people how important it is to wear a mask. If necessary, of course. And indeed: 'By looking after myself, I look after you'. This is something that's very important to the population. And I have the impression that people have understood this.
Preparations are indeed underway for a second wave. We are working on this at the level of the federal government and will also consult with the federated entities, to be able to organise a comprehensive approach.
You are well aware that crisis management, managing a potential crisis, a second potential crisis, only works in case of effective cooperation between the federal government and the regions.
From next Wednesday, as I said, more flexibility will be allowed. I'm not going to go into details, but it relates to the personal bubble.
The bubble of close contacts, which is currently limited to 10, has been increased to 15. This is about the number of different people you can see per week, but also about the size of the groups. We understand that 15 may not seem like much yet, but these are private contacts, which we know are closer and can therefore spread the virus faster. Therefore, a reasonable limit is required. The protocols referring to the 'close contact bubble' can therefore be updated to 15 people. And I fully agree with you that these are 5 extra people in your daily life who are important to you. At the end of the day, this is quite something. This may not always be enough, but it goes some way.
I know that some people deplore the limit of 50 people for receptions and compare this to the larger numbers for other events. This is not a good comparison, no bubbles are mixed during public events. The organisation of a public event implies strict protocols and controls by the government, and people generally do not know each other and generally do not mingle.
This is not true for private parties where everyone knows that the safety distance is much more difficult to respect, which intrinsically entails a high risk of the virus spreading.
There was also a question about events, where the number of attendees is limited to 50, but for indoor events with an audience the number is 200, and for outdoor events the number stands at 400. In this case, there's an audience who, for example, are generally sitting down in infrastructure provided for this purpose. Protocols have to be defined before the event starts, protocols that will make it possible to manage not only the way people sit in bubbles or even separated from each other, but also the ingress and egress of people, the use of sanitary facilities, a whole series of measures that, as you will certainly understand, are much more difficult to do in your private lives.
The issue of the closing time of bars and restaurants was also raised within the National Security Council. However, after hearing the stakeholders in the field and in consultation with the GEES experts, we have decided not to change the closing time that is now in force, i.e. 1.00 AM. Not only because the rule is clear, and we do not want to change a clear rule.
According to the NSC, keeping bars and restaurants open for longer would not address the problem raised. I would like to remind you that NSC not only has political officials, but also representatives from the police and other security services of the country. They consider that keeping these establishments open for longer can lead to potential problems simply being shifted to later in the night. And the security services want to prevent problems as much as possible by having police forces present in the places concerned.
And it is true that some establishments have opened in these industries, while some others are still closed, and this indeed includes nightlife and mass events, large crowds, which are still banned because of the epidemiological risk that persists.
And we are aware that the situation is particularly complicated for these industries, and that is why I pointed out yesterday that we must continue to support these industries, either at federal level as we are doing, or in a cross-cutting matter - I am not going to repeat all the measures - or more specifically at the level of the Regions, which have an important competence in this area.
As far as the cultural industry is concerned, should it be necessary, I would first point out that it is indeed the Community level that is competent. Nevertheless, as you know, we have taken action for the limited areas for which the federal government is competent.
Firstly, artists, just like actors in other industries, and this was also the case for nightlife, benefit from the general measures taken under the Plan for Social and Economic Protection, such as unemployment due to force majeure, the bridging right for the self-employed and postponement of certain charges.
But we are aware that, given the very gradual resumption of their activities, more specific measures had to be taken. That is why, for example, in the third part, we decided to introduce a "consumption voucher" worth 300 EUR, which is specifically but not exclusively aimed at purchasing goods and services in industries such as the cultural industry. This voucher is, I remind you, 100% tax-deductible and tax-free.
At the same time, however, this Parliament has taken the lead on a number of issues that had been or could have been discussed at our K10 meetings. All parties present, however, preferred for Parliament to deal with this, which we accepted without any problems of course, since you are still the ones responsible for all the work you do. Therefore, as a government, you will allow me not to comment on the agenda of the work that is primarily your responsibility.
So, there are indeed more structural issues that need to be addressed, such as the introduction of a genuine artist's statute. This issue was discussed during an IMC on culture, i.e. an Inter-Ministerial Conference on Culture, but also at a meeting I organised on 25 May with representatives of the sector and all the ministers involved. And another Inter-Ministerial Conference is scheduled for 14 July. I have no doubt we will return to the question of the artist's statute. However, these issues are more structural in nature and therefore fall outside the scope of crisis management as such and will certainly be the subject of exciting discussions about forming a government, which I hope will happen soon.