At the first Consultative Committee this year, Belgium is mainly sticking with the measures already in place against the Omicron variant, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced during a press conference on Thursday afternoon.
"First of all, I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year. Wishing each other good health sounds more sincere than ever," De Croo said. "Although we are in a much better position than last year, it is very clear that we will still have difficult moments in the coming weeks and months."
"Today, the Consultative Committee met mainly to consider the impact of the Omicron on the pandemic. That is why, especially today, we will listen to more explanation from the GEMS scientists," he added.
"We can safely say that the fifth wave has started," said virologist Steven Van Gucht, who was present to give a more scientific explanation about the situation. "The past few days we have registered record values."
Up to 125,000 infections per day possible
According to the models, this increase will continue for several weeks. "We expect a sharp increase in infections, peaking in mid-January. That peak, which can vary greatly, could be between 30,000 and even 125,000 daily recorded infections. It will very much depend on the testing, which will present fewer cases than in reality."
The recent holiday season and the Omicron variant are likely responsible for this sharp rise, Van Gucht stated. The number of infections is increasing in all ages except among children. "But that is only a matter of time. They are typically tested less during the Christmas holidays."
The strongest increase in infection rates is currently seen among people in their 20s and 30s. "It is slightly more worrying that there is also an increase among the over-65s, especially in Brussels," he said, noting that there is a slight increase in infections in residential care centres, although these are fortunately quite low.
Hospital admissions also started to rise at the end of December and look set to continue, Van Gucht said. "This is more pronounced in Brussels. We expect the peak to be at the end of January. That could be between 400 and over 1,000 admissions a day."
Half of ICU beds occupied by non-vaccinated patients
Importantly, 46% of Covid-19 patients in intensive care are not vaccinated, despite the fact that unvaccinated people represent only a small part of the population. "It is very obvious: they are overrepresented in intensive care."
"Additionally, recent analyses show that the risk of ending up in intensive care is six to nine times lower after vaccination," Van Gucht said. "I cannot stress the importance of vaccination and booster doses enough."
The booster increases that protection even more, Van Gucht said. "Belgian data show that the protection against infection is about 60-70%, especially in the first weeks after the booster. After ten weeks or so, the protection could drop to 40%. Foreign data show that the protection against serious illness also increases, even up to 88%."
With the new quarantine rules, those who have had a high-risk contact may leave quarantine earlier, provided that the general precautionary measures are strictly observed. "In the 10 days following a high-risk contact, do not visit a residential care centre, work from home as much as possible, do not go to a bar or restaurant and preferably wear an FFP2 face mask."
In general, the advice is to "avoid contacts as much as possible, work from home as much as possible and, above all, get the booster dose," Van Gucht concluded.
'Choosing the path of caution'
Prime Minister De Croo repeated that "Omicron is more infectious and spreads a lot faster than previous variants, although it seems to be less severe."
However, the virus is still not harmless, he stressed. "The impact on society can still be great. That is why the Consultative Committee has decided to maintain the measures as they exist today. We are choosing to take the path of caution."
This "set of stable measures" has to ensure that the impact of the Omicron wave on the healthcare sector and in education remains limited. "Currently, 4.5 million Belgians have already received a booster shot. That is one in two adults in the country. By the end of this month, everyone will have had the opportunity to receive a booster shot."
The Consultative Committee also confirmed that the schools will be able to reopen fully on Monday. "This applies to nursery, primary, secondary and part-time art education. The wearing of face masks from the age of 6 remains in force," De Croo said. Discussions on how to resume higher education safely are still ongoing.
'It will get worse before it gets better'
Concerning telework, the Consultative Committee left the current rules unaltered: four days a week instead of full-time. "We deviate slightly from the GEMS advice that recommended five days a week, but we do this because we believe that companies have organised themselves well."
De Croo also pointed to the "coronavirus barometer" for the measures in the various sectors, which will be introduced soon and "will be an important management tool in the coming months. For when things are going better, but also for when things get worse. It is important that we have perspective, that we have predictability."
"To conclude, we have to be honest: we are facing difficult weeks," he said. "We will break records in terms of the number of infections. A very large group will be infected. It will get worse before it gets better."
"But we are also armed, we are in a very good position when it comes to booster vaccination, which is our first and best line of defence, but we also know how to protect each other by looking out for each other," De Croo said. "As always: take care of yourself and take care of each other."
Relaxed quarantine rules
For Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke, the objective is clear: "we want to ensure that healthcare can continue to operate. We want our children to be able to go to school next Monday. We also want businesses to be able to keep running." The overview of the new quarantine rules can be found here.
"We have to balance that. Therefore, we and the health ministers have adjusted the quarantine rules. We are not doing that because Omicron is a minor problem," he said. "The reason is that we want to prioritise our testing capacity on people with symptoms of illness. And because we want the schools and businesses to be able to function normally. If people are very careful and know what to do, then you can do something on those quarantine rules."
"In the coming week, we want to focus the PCR testing capacity on people who have symptoms," Vandenbroucke stressed.
Additionally, the Federal Government is not considering making the self-tests free of charge. "That is not because we are against it in principle. Nor because the Federal Government is the poorest of all the governments. The argument is practical: we make the tests massively available in supermarkets, where you can buy them for about €3 or €3.50."
Reset of the coronavirus barometer
"We cannot make a reimbursement system for supermarkets," Vandenbroucke said. "There is also a supply in pharmacies, where the tests cost between €6 and €8 today. For those with a low income, everyone in the family is entitled to 4 tests a week at €1."
However, local authorities or educational authorities are "most definitely" allowed to offer free self-tests to the population. "And even better: I hope that they will indeed do that," he added.
Vandenbroucke acknowledged the considerable vacillation on the subject of the coronavirus barometer. "Now, there will be a reset of that concept. It will become a logical scheme with coronavirus measures linked to the situation at that moment."
However, the measures will not be implemented automatically when a certain limit is exceeded. "The scheme must give a structure that indicates measures that can be taken at that moment."
The Consultative Committee is expected to meet again next week to look into the coronavirus barometer and discuss a medium-term strategy.