After no new measures were taken at the previous Consultative Committee meeting, Belgium is finally introducing the long-awaited coronavirus barometer, announced Prime Minister Alexander De Croo during a press conference on Friday.
"Omicron is living up to its reputation. We see all over Europe that it is no longer a wave, but a real tsunami," De Croo said. "However, and this is good news, Omicron also makes people less sick, so the pressure on the healthcare system is not as bad."
"Today, the people who still end up in hospitals' intensive care units are or vulnerable people, such as the elderly or those with underlying diseases, or the unvaccinated," he added.
"The hope is that we can go from a pandemic to an endemic. That should ensure that we would have much less unpredictability. But let me be clear: that is not yet the case today," De Croo said. "That is why we have developed the barometer."
The coronavirus barometer will consist of three phases: yellow, orange and red – with corresponding measures for culture, events and the hospitality industry. "Let me be clear: this will not put Covid policy on autopilot. It will be a decision instrument for the Consultative Committee."
"The Consultative Committee will determine the code in which we find ourselves, and therefore also the measures," said De Croo. "This will be based on scientific analysis and figures in healthcare, but it is also based on a broader analysis of the situation such as social welfare and motivation, among others."
'Not on autopilot'
Corona Commissioner Pedro Facon explained that the Commission already started working on such a barometer as early as 2020. "We had to think carefully about something like this, and we did it very thoroughly," he said. "We also did prospective modelling to be able to look ahead at what the expectation would be on intensive care."
"As the Prime Minister said, it will not put us on autopilot. To begin with, each situation requires a thorough analysis. The Consultative Committee is supported in this by reports," Facon said. "At each meeting, the Consultative Committee will evaluate the situation. If the situation so requires, the Committee can take stricter measures than those provided for in the barometer."
"The coronavirus barometer focuses on three sectors: events, organised leisure activities and the hospitality industry. Based on the analysis of the measures we have taken in the last 18 months and intensive consultations with the sectors, the Commission has determined measures for these three areas," Facon said.
"The Consultative Committee has taken into account a broad evaluation of the situation. The epidemiological situation is changing rapidly. There are changes in the burden of disease and hospitalisation. New insights emerge daily and there is cautious hope for improvement," he said. "The bottom line is that we can better prepare for situations. Normal life is getting closer."
To switch from one colour to another, the Consultative Committee will set a series of thresholds, stressed De Croo. "The two most important ones are the occupancy in the intensive care unit and the hospitalisations."
Code red will come into force as soon as 150 new hospitalisations are recorded in one day and a total of at least 500 Covid-19 patients in intensive care. Code orange refers to 65 new hospitalisations per day and a total of at least 300 Covid-19 patients in intensive care. Everything below that will be code yellow.
"However, it is not a mechanical system, it is an assessment that we do. On top of that, we also look at the evolution of the curves and the positivity rate and mental well-being will also be considered."
Code red from Friday 28 January
"From next Friday, we are going into code red of the barometer," said De Croo.
Public events are allowed inside and outside, with the exception of dynamic events inside (such as nightclubs, dance parties). The events can go on with 200 people inside with face masks.
Venues with a larger capacity can use up to 70% of the capacity. Those with good air quality (more than 900pp CO2) can even use 100% of their capacity. "Always wear a face mask."
Weddings and funerals can also continue. Everything that was already allowed today, will remain allowed.
The hospitality industry remains in code red, meaning that the closing time will be changed from 23:00 to midnight.
Organised activities, such as youth clubs and associations, can still take place within code red. A maximum of 80 people may be present for indoor activities, and 200 outside. Camps with overnight stays are also allowed.
Indoor spaces like indoor playgrounds, bowling alleys, snooker and billiard halls, and casinos can open again.
Apart from that, the current measures will remain in force as long as the country is in code red, De Croo said. "This means that teleworking remains compulsory four days a week, the face mask obligation remains in place and shopping must be done alone or in pairs."
Booster needed for CST from March
From 1 March, a booster vaccination will be mandatory for a valid Covid Safe Ticket (CST), if the second dose of the basic vaccination was administered more than five months ago.
"In practice, this means that those who had their last shot before 1 October must have received a booster before 1 March to ensure that their CST remains valid," De Croo said. "Every additional vaccination gives us additional freedom. The CST is an important instrument that ensures that we can maintain our social life."
He stressed that the CST will not remain necessary for eternity. "If, after Omicron, the infections and the situation in the hospitals have stabilised, then we will reconsider the use of the CST. We will not use this kind of certificate for one day too long, but today, it is still an important tool."
"We are now in red, then comes orange and then yellow," said Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon. "In code yellow, there is no more CST. Then the pandemic turns into an endemic. An endemic is a situation where we treat the virus like a flu."
In the coming weeks, the parliament will look at the CST and consider the circumstances in which it remains useful. "The CST is important to motivate people to get vaccinated," he said. "It is important to all get vaccinated in the fight against the virus. It is also a call to respond to the invitation to get boosted."
Jambon also clarified that the parameters to switch to another colour in the barometer must always be considered together. "Today, the occupancy rate is below the agreed threshold. That would be an argument to switch to code orange. But at the same time, you see that hospital admissions are rising sharply. So it would be irresponsible to switch to a lower level."
'Taking steps towards normal life'
For Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke, the agreement on the barometer is important because it gives individuals and authorities some predictability. "I want to emphasise that we can take steps towards a normal life. Important things are becoming possible again. And they are only becoming possible because we have retained a whole package of measures."
Additionally, the booster campaign is going well, but it is not yet complete. "There are still too many people who have not had the booster yet. That is also one of the reasons why, from 1 March, you will only be given a green screen for your vaccination certificate if you have been boostered. That is unless your basic vaccination is very recent, no more than five months ago."
Vandenbroucke also clarified that this only applies to adults, as there are currently no booster doses for under-18s. "Young people will still be able to use their CST based on their basic vaccination (two doses, or one for Johnson & Johnson)."