Belgium could move away from the face mask obligation in September, and start giving people individual responsibility to wear one when needed, according to vaccinologist Pierre Van Damme.
Most of the people over 12 years old will have received their second dose of the vaccine in September, which will see the circulation of the virus decrease, he said on Flemish radio on Wednesday.
"From then on, we can gradually see to what extent we still need a face mask," Van Damme said, adding that he hopes that most people will be able to judge for themselves in which situation is still needed, after a year and a half of living with the virus.
"I think, in September, we are moving in the direction of no longer talking about compulsory face masks, but leaving it to the people themselves," he said, stressing that everything depends on the epidemiological situation.
"It depends on our knowledge of the virus as well, because the coronavirus keeps surprising us," Van Damme said. "That is why we still advocate looking at everything step by step."
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"I think it will be self-evident. If there is not much of a crowd, and you are in an open space, for example on a platform in a train station, then there is no need to wear a mask," he said. "In an indoor space, with little ventilation and a lot of people, it is still useful."
"But that will not happen overnight and not everywhere at once," Van Damme stressed.
On Wednesday, several members of the GEMS expert group advising the government, including chair Erika Vlieghe and infectious diseases professor Steven Callens, made similar statements.
When the last people have been vaccinated and much less virus will be circulating, "compulsory face masks will no longer be necessary," Callens said. "People will be able to decide for themselves whether to put it on or not, depending on the situation."
At the moment, however, with over 60% of the entire Belgian population fully vaccinated, face masks are "certainly" still useful, according to Van Damme.
"We are doing well with our vaccination rate, but about half of the 18 to 34-year-olds are not yet fully vaccinated. So we are certainly not yet in the luxury position of dropping the face mask already."
Additionally, reopening the schools without face masks on 1 September is likely still too early, and it would be better to keep them on for the first few months of the school year, Van Damme said.
"But here too, everything depends on the vaccination rate, on how the virus is circulating at that time and on how well the classrooms are ventilated," he said.
"We have also been calling for CO₂ meters in schools for some time," Van Damme added, echoing earlier statements by virologist Marc Van Ranst, who called them "a relatively modest investment" that will allow the authorities to measure what happens.
"In any case, we will have to keep a close eye on the coronavirus figures in early September," Van Damme said.