'Too early' for Belgium to loosen coronavirus lockdown, government task force warns

'Too early' for Belgium to loosen coronavirus lockdown, government task force warns
Illustration picture shows a woman sitting alone on a bench and wearing a mask in the Grand-Place in Brussels, Wednesday in March 2020. © Belga/Thierry Roge

It is "far too early" for Belgium to define a timetable to lift its coronavirus lockdown, the head of the expert team appointed to steer the country out of the nationwide standstill warned.

"It is far too early for that, the hospitals are still packed, it is not yet time to loosen the grip like in Austria," Erika Vlieghe, infectious disease expert told De Standaard.

Vlieghe's statements come a day after authorities in Austria announced a dated exit strategy out of the country's coronavirus lockdown, set to begin on 15 April, just over a month after it was imposed on 10 March.

Vlieghe, who heads the Department of Infectious Diseases at UZ Antwerp university hospital, has been appointed as chair of Belgium's Group of Experts for an Exit Strategy (GEES).

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"We know that the virus can wreak havoc if we release our grip too early," Vlieghe, who has experience as the lead adviser and coordinator of Belgium's response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, said. "This is going to be a long-term process."

As Denmark on Tuesday followed in the footsteps of Austria, announcing a plan to reopen schools from mid-April, Vlieghe said it was too early for a familiar move from Belgium.

"I cannot say anything useful about the opening of schools yet, but we are going to give people some perspective as soon as possible," she said.

Ten experts tasked with rolling back lockdown

The creation of the GEES, a group of high-level experts from the fields of social, economic and health sciences, comes after Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès announced at the start of April that Belgium would ease itself out of the nationwide lockdown.

A total of ten experts, including Vlieghe, have been tasked with crafting an advisory strategy for the government to progressively roll Belgium back to pre-coronavirus normality.

The group includes virologists Marc Van Ranst and Emmanuel André, who are already part of the country's current coronavirus response team, with the latter giving daily updates to the press about the virus' advancement in Belgium.

Biostatistician Niel Hens and head of the National Fund for Scientific Research Marius Gilbert will bring additional scientific expertise while lawyer Inge Bernaets, formerly with the EU's antitrust authority, will steer coordination with the EU.

The social impact of the measures on precarious populations and poverty-related risks will be overseen by Céline Nieuwenhuys, the head of Wallonia-Brussels Fédération of Social Services (FdSS).

Business and economic interests will be represented by economics professor Mathias Dewatripont, by Johnny Thijs, the former boss of the national post service and current chair of energy utility Electrabel, and by the governor of the National Bank, Pierre Wunsch.

Gabriela Galindo

The Brussels Times

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