Response to parliamentary questions on the handling of the crisis and on the recovery
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Handling of the coronavirus crisis
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Of course, the summer-holiday period is a very popular time for people to travel abroad, and the lockdown we have experienced because of the public-health crisis has definitely made the desire for a change of scene even greater.
However, as we know and as has been said many times, the virus has not gone anywhere. It is still out there. New infection clusters have emerged in several of Belgium’s neighbouring countries, prompting the authorities to reimpose lockdown in certain municipalities or even across whole regions. Therefore, we must remain vigilant, ensure we are fully informed of the epidemiological situation at holiday destinations and, of course, continue to apply the preventive measures that are – or at least, should be – familiar to us all by now.
First of all, allow me to reiterate the restrictions that are still in force with regard to travel. To start with, we must draw a distinction here between essential and non-essential travel.
As you will recall, the National Security Council has already laid down clear rules regarding non-essential travel abroad: it has strictly limited the list of countries to which Belgian nationals may travel to countries which are members of the European Union and/or the Schengen area, so to 31 countries in total.
Travel advice for each of these countries is available on the FPS Foreign Affairs website. The advice now also features a colour code to enable people to determine whether they can travel to the country in question – either without restriction or subject to certain conditions – or not.
As a precautionary measure, the Consultation Committee, which met yesterday, with the Exit Strategy Expert Group in attendance, has come up with a general approach to managing the restrictions and recommendations applying to travel abroad by Belgian nationals, bearing in mind the virus’s resurgence in some areas that had initially been deemed safe.
This new approach too distinguishes between red, orange and green zones. Its aim is to refine the country lists, given their importance for matters such as quarantine and testing, and break them down by municipality, area, region or country. The new codes will be published on the FPS Foreign Affairs website as soon as possible, most likely today.
Areas whose epidemiological situation compares very unfavourably with our own or where the authorities have had to reintroduce restrictions must be considered red zones. Belgium has officially banned travel to these areas. Travellers returning to Belgium from these areas while this ban is in place will be considered ‘high-risk contacts’, meaning they must be tested by a doctor and quarantined. The doctor will also issue these travellers with a quarantine certificate, which will give them access to the temporary unemployment system or, rather, entitle them to a replacement income and social security cover.
Areas posing little or no risk to health, based on CELEVAL’s advice, will be considered green zones. No particular restrictions will apply to travel to and from these areas, although precautionary measures should, of course, continue to be taken.
Naturally, there are also areas where the situation compares unfavourably with Belgium, but not excessively so. A colour code also had to be assigned to these areas to alert travellers to the need for vigilance. These areas will be designated orange zones. This distinction has the additional advantage of ensuring that there is a level between green and red. CELEVAL will issue advice for these areas too, and this will be based on objective epidemiological criteria and on monitoring of the health policy adopted there. Belgium advises against travel to these areas, and travellers returning from these areas will be advised to get tested and go into quarantine. Naturally, travellers’ first port of call in this regard should be their doctor. Minister Muylle will answer the question about tour operators.
CELEVAL’s experts will need to update the list of zones quickly and will then need to adjust it based on the information published on the FPS Foreign Affairs website. The plan is to update the list at regular intervals. As I said before, the first update will be made today. This will be done by CELEVAL. It will therefore be a shared task, since, and I will say it again, the CELEVAL evaluation unit consists of health experts (including virologists), FPS Interior staff, and representatives of the federated entities.
The regions and the German-speaking Community, which are in charge of prevention policy, must provide a legal framework under which it will be possible to make testing and quarantine mandatory for ‘high-risk contacts’, the aim always being, of course, to have a coordinated policy.
That is what we wish to do, and that is what would be desirable, Mr Prévot. It is also what has been agreed.
As regards the mandatory wearing of face masks, as I said at the most recent National Security Council meeting, the experts on the Exit Strategy Expert Group are currently looking into the issue and will report back to the National Security Council on Wednesday. Until then, we will continue to follow their latest advice.
Naturally, I am sure they will also take account of the Superior Health Council’s opinion.
In terms of preparing for a second wave, our first course of action should, of course, be to do our utmost to prevent such an occurrence. That is our rationale for continuing to restrict the freedom of everyone living in Belgium – after all, we mustn’t forget that we have unfortunately been unable to lift all the restrictions on people’s freedom just yet. I have heard people urging us to exercise extreme caution, given the possibility of a second wave, while at the same time calling for the resumption of all normal activities, including those involving the highest risk. Despite this, we are trying to be at least somewhat consistent. And I acknowledge that this isn’t an easy situation: the restrictions are hard on individuals and communities, as well as from an economic perspective. That said, we must continue to apply them. Everyone’s health depends on it.
As far as federal responsibilities are concerned, you will recall you that no matter how bad the crisis got, our hospitals were never overwhelmed. So although our healthcare workers were very much put to the test when the crisis was at its height, the occupancy rate of Belgium’s intensive care units never exceeded 58% nationwide, in stark contrast to the situation unfortunately experienced in other countries.
Our hospitals took appropriate steps to tackle the challenge posed by the pandemic, and the hospital plan was adjusted to incorporate the lessons learned from our painful initial experiences with the virus.
As for the supply of protective equipment, I should reiterate that 100 million surgical masks and 2 million FFP2 masks have already been distributed. By the end of August, Belgium’s strategic stock will consist of 200 million surgical masks – double the number required during the first wave of the crisis – and 33 million FFP2 masks. I will let you do the maths. And of course, these figures do not include the stocks of equipment and protective material already held by hospitals, nursing and care homes and other stakeholders in the field, nor the stocks that they will continue to order.
At present, it is vital to take swift action to address any potential localised resurgence. A resurgence management policy – that is the term that is being used – must be adopted to this end. As you will recall, responsibility for doing this lies with the regions. The interministerial conference has drafted framework agreements and protocols to ensure that the strategy adopted by the various federated entities is consistent. However, the federated entities remain responsible for drawing up their own plan.
As I’m sure you’re aware, a pan-Belgian testing and tracing platform has been set up as well. Naturally, the resurgence management policy must be capable of evolving to reflect changes in the epidemiological situation.
The ‘second wave’ strategy also encompasses other components, such as management of the frontline response, communication, and medicine supply, all of which must coalesce into a general vision that will be devised in conjunction with the federated entities.
The federal government and the federated entities have been meeting regularly since the crisis began, and this will continue for the good of Belgium’s people, even though our country is very complex from an institutional point of view.
And we can see that this complexity sometimes holds us back. As a result, it can be all too easy to point the finger at a colleague. We are facing a challenging time at the moment, but we have faced it together, and we intend to continue working together along the same lines because the health and safety of Belgium’s people depend on it.
Vacancies, the recovery and budgetary orthodoxy
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The public-health crisis has forced us to take exceptional measures with regard to economic support and social protection. Most of the measures taken to address the emergency were adopted in cooperation with the 10 parties that supported the granting of special powers, and will remain in force until 31 December.
The National Bank estimates that the measures will cost the country a total of €15 billion, of which almost €11 billion at federal level and a little over €4 billion at the level of the federated entities. While these costs are considerable, the unprecedented situation we faced forced us to take swift, decisive action to minimise the impact of the crisis and insulate us from even greater budgetary repercussions in the medium term.
The latest studies by the Economic Risk Management Group indicate that in some respects, the situation is better than initially forecast, particularly in terms of business turnover. However, we are aware that things are still very difficult for many sectors.
The resumption of activities and the economic recovery are now firmly at the top of the agenda for us.
Allow me to remind you that when I came to ask you to place your confidence in me, I made a clear commitment to preparing for this recovery. These preparations must be made on a step-by-step basis, and the first step should enable us to identify the challenges we face.
Of course, we had already pinpointed a number of major challenges before the outbreak of the crisis, but these challenges are being exacerbated by the crisis we have just experienced, and new challenges have emerged too.
Along with other members of the government, I will spend three weeks listening to and talking with institutional representatives, academics, businesspeople, players in the field, and civil-society representatives.
These discussions will cover three key points: investment, protection and development. The major issues we will address will include macroeconomic changes, economic development, social policy, cohesion, health, sustainable development, and the energy transition.
We will also need to take into account the initiatives adopted by the federated entities and by the European Union and ensure that our plans are consistent with and complementary to these.
As you may have understood, the aim of this procedure is to prepare Belgium’s recovery plan, not to implement it. I have already said as much to this Parliament on several occasions. For a recovery plan to be implemented, there must first be a certain degree of stability – and therefore a majority government. This will also help to ensure consistency with parliamentary work, which, as you know, is more difficult when there is no stable majority in Parliament.
Indeed, negotiations are currently in progress regarding the formation of a future government. This government’s work will doubtless provide some additional input for these negotiations. Our work doesn’t conflict with efforts to form a new government; it complements them. Indeed, as a government – a minority government – we have a duty and a responsibility to continue managing the situation and prepare for the future.
Mr De Roover, you were wondering how everything would be financed and what would happen with the recovery plan. When I came to ask this Parliament to place its confidence in me – and the degree of confidence I received was very limited indeed – I made it clear that I would always act accordingly. So I will indeed prepare the recovery plan. It is both my responsibility and my duty to do so. That said, if everyone around the table truly wishes to work constructively on formulating a recovery plan, in the knowledge that such a plan is absolutely vital for our country, then I suggest that they actually sit down together and get down to business.