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Belgium’s compounding communications problems

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Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has come under fire for a lack of clarity in his message that travel is “strongly discouraged,” the day after the government faced criticism for poorly communicating an update to measures.

Deputies François De Smet, Catherine Fonck and Jasper Pillen all confronted De Croo during a recent meeting, calling on the government to be clear on its intentions amid fears of further infections coming from abroad.

“Strongly discouraged” travel did not prevent tens of thousands of travellers from going abroad during the year-end vacation, De Smet explained. “In Belgium, we have the rare ability to believe that we are an island. But when reality catches up with us, it catches up with us much harder than in other countries”.

“We ask you for more clarity,” Fonck added, urging that either the borders remain open, and there is an effective system of tracing and control, or they are closed.

To the PM, however, he is perfectly clear in what he means. “I can’t understand what’s not clear when you say it’s highly discouraged,” he noted.

Experts have continued to advocate for the closing of borders, but so far have received no political backing.

The clearest solution to avoiding the spread of the more infectious variants is to “reduce all movement as much as possible,” the former interfederal Covid-19 spokesperson Emmanuel André told RTBF on Thursday. “This is necessary. We do not have a choice. We must act now.”

Biostatistician Geert Molenberghs made similar comments on Wednesday, warning that while it was a politically sensitive matter, “closing the borders would be “a sensible measure from an epidemiological point of view.”

“Incomprehensible”

This news comes just a day after Belgium faced criticism for a different communications problem when the publication of a new Ministerial Decree setting the new end date for Belgium’s current measures to 1 March went out without proper communication.

While Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden was quick to defend the move – calling it a “worst-case scenario,” and “only a formality,” – critics have warned there could be lasting impact on willingness to follow the rules.

It is incomprehensible that there has been no communication about this,” psychologist Maarten Vansteenkiste of UGent told VRT.

“We have already delivered several opinions on ways to motivate people,” said Vansteenkiste, who is also a member of the GEMS expert group that advises the government on covid matters. it is “essential” people are given the appropriate reason why things are happening, he added.

Further questions to De Croo on a calendar of relaxing measures in Belgium were left unanswered. “I understand that people are asking us to give them perspectives. The reality is that today we cannot say: this is what is going to happen on this date. The only thing we can guarantee is that we do a daily evaluation.”

Currently, Belgium’s Consultative Committee is scheduled to meet again on Friday 22 January, to assess the situation and discuss the measures in place. Under the new updated measures, rules may last until March, but could still be relaxed sooner if an exceptional change is seen.

 Jules Johnston
The Brussels Times

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