Over the past week, Belgium and the Netherlands announced a further lifting of their COVID restrictions. While there was no mutual coordination, both countries’ new guidelines would go into effect on the same day—February 18th.
Last Friday, Belgium’s Consultation Committee presented its decision to switch to ‘code orange’ and with it, promised an easing of restrictions. It hopes to proceed to code yellow in March. The so-called ‘corona barometer’, to which the codes refer, was launched on January 28th, and had been initially set on code red, the highest threat level. This indicates a risk of healthcare services being overburdened, while code orange denotes an increase in pressure on them. Yellow indicates the situation being under control.
At the press conference, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (Open VLD) said that “in recent days, a general consensus has been growing that we can go to code orange.” While restaurants, cafés, nightclubs and the like no longer have to abide by a set closing hour, and clientele can leave their masks at home, the Covid Safe Ticket (CST) “will be retained,” De Croo said. Working from home would now no longer be mandatory, but recommended only. The masking of younger children—a delicate topic in Belgium—would also be done away with. “The minimum age for a mandatory wearing of face masks will shift from six to twelve years,” De Croo explained.
De Croo urged caution however.
The virus is not gone yet. We have thought so in the past, but shouldn’t make that mistake again. This is not a seasonal flu. We have learned how to deal with the virus and have acquired immunity … A breezier spring is coming. It will be freer and more relaxed … Let us not forget the basic measures, for they have a major impact.
Flemish Prime Minister Jan Jambon (N-VA) approved of the decision, and found it to be “a good thing for the hospitality and cultural sector.” Under the new guidelines, venue capacity would now be considered when deciding how many people could attend a cultural event. “We have taken a good step, but are not there yet,” Jambon said. “If we respect the current measures, hopefully we can take the next step towards normality.”
Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo (PS) of the Walloon region hoped to go to code yellow in early or mid-March. While not showing himself firmly committed to scrapping the safety ticket wholesale if that point is reached, he did leave open the possibility.
Federal Minister of Health Frank Vandenbroucke (Vooruit) was satisfied that the corona barometer was being adhered to, and thanked Belgian citizens for keeping to “tedious” regulations and getting themselves vaccinated. Belgium would also adjust its travel guidelines, Vandenbroucke said. It would now focus solely on the status (recovered, vaccinated, or tested) of anyone coming into the country, and no longer on where they come from (the color-coded travel zones). This means that any distinction between European and non-European countries disappears. Those who are unvaccinated will always have to be able to present a negative test however. If those unvaccinated come from a non-EU country, only essential travel (not tourism) is allowed.
Vandenbroucke added that “from the beginning of March, as an adult, the CST screen only turns green when you take the booster.” Exceptions would be made for those who recently received a standard vaccination, but no more than five months ago. Young people however don’t need to have received a booster to get a CST-clearance.
Some liveliness was added to the proceedings when, during the question round, a journalist confronted De Croo, saying “Mr. De Croo, all your press conferences are just for show. You have no answers, the time is over for asking yourself questions. History will judge you all.” After his statement, the man left the room. He was later identified as Alexandre Penasse, editor of the independent news website Kairos.
A next Consultation Committee meeting is scheduled for early March. “According to the models, we can go to code yellow at that time,” De Croo confirmed.
In the Netherlands, it was the Minister of Health Ernst Kuipers who held a solo press conference on Tuesday. Prime Minister Mark Rutte could not be present, as he was tied up in the Senate. Kuipers announced that the country would be fully reopened in large steps, adding that by doing so, they are “definitely taking a risk,” and that they “also have to continue to monitor very closely whether new variants are emerging.”
An extension of the closing hours of the hospitality and cultural sector to 1 a.m. will start this Friday. From then on, a maximum of 500 people per venue may gather. The following week, almost all corona measures will be lifted, including the 1.5 meter distance rule and the corona certificate. “We are more resistant to the virus through vaccines and booster shots. Moreover, the omicron variant is less contagious than previously thought,” a cautiously optimistic Kuipers said, adding that the variant is more innocuous than previous ones.
Yet, despite this significant relaxation of the health cabinet’s policy, it advises keeping distance from each other and wearing a face mask. The latter will still apply in public transport and at airports. “Keeping distance and face masks remain sensible, not as a measure but as urgent advice,” Kuipers said. The minister still cautioned for major events, such as carnival. “Celebrate carnival in your own environment. Celebrate at the café, but avoid crowds,” he emphasized. Lauding the Dutch for their efforts in acting responsibly, Kuipers anticipates “moving into the next phase with great confidence.”
Explaining this phased relaxation of measures, Kuipers said they “need time to get to a lower level of infections.” Scrapping all measures was considered, but the risk of a rising infection rate proved too great. “And we really want to prevent that.”
Kuipers looked back on the measures they had tried for the past two years:
Everything revolved around healthcare, there really was no other way. People died, it’s been a very hard time. But also for all other Dutch people: young people, entrepreneurs, and artists. Corona cast a shadow over our lives and sometimes divided us to the bone.
On March 15th, the cabinet will reconsider any remaining measures, such as the mandatory wearing of face masks on public transport and the advice on working from home. The requirement of a negative COVID-19 test for indoor events with more than five hundred attendees would also be reconsidered.