Prime minister Sophie Wilmès received a cold reception from staff at the Saint Peter hospital in Brussels yesterday on an official visit, when staff formed a reception committee and turned their backs on her ministerial car on arrival.
The hospital has been central to the current coronavirus crisis since the beginning, when it was the reference hospital for confirmed cases. Belgium’s first ever coronavirus patient, Philippe Soubry, was treated there on his return from Wuhan in China, where the pandemic started.
As the number of cases grew, other hospitals started taking their share of cases.
Wilmès was yesterday on a planned visit to the Saint Peter hospital in the Marolles area of Brussels, as well as the Delta hospital in Auderghem – the first time she has made a hospital visit since the start of the crisis.
“Visits to the Delta Hospital and UMC Sint-Pieter were important moments of meeting and dialogue for both the nursing staff and me,” her official Twitter account read. “Health situation, mental strain, job valuation, health care financing – it’s all been discussed.”
The dialogue with the nursing staff and other front-line workers appeared slightly different on her arrival, however. As her car entered the Saint Peter hospital grounds and made its way to the entrance, a double row of health care workers lining the route ostentatiously turned their backs on her arrival, in what some observers described as a “guard of dishonour”.
Representatives later explained that front-line workers were disappointed in the government’s handling of the crisis, and its approach to health care in general, including issues such as budget cuts, low salaries and staff shortages. They are also unhappy about the government’s attempts to recruit unqualified staff to provide support to nursing personnel, rather than pay for trained professionals.
The prime ministerial visit, said Philippe Leroy, director-general of the hospital, was “very appreciated”.
“The troops have gone through a lot of emotions. There is fatigue, and a lot of anxiety at some points. I think they needed to express a lot of things,” he said.
Meanwhile a spokesperson for the prime minister said, “The government’s objective is to support the management of the crisis and certainly not to make it more difficult. And for that we have to sometimes make decisions that are difficult.”
According to RTL News, staff representatives said they were not authorised to comment on the demonstration on the prime minister’s visit.