Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke on Monday evening called for the mandatory vaccination of healthcare personnel in response to the low vaccination coverage rate in Brussels.
The decision to make vaccination compulsory for these professions, which caused public outrage in France and Greece, had previously been discussed, but now Vandenbroucke has announced that he will formally propose the measure to the Federal Government.
"I think that for people who work in healthcare, as well as for doctors in private practices or for physiotherapists, it should be the norm and therefore the obligation: you get vaccinated. As an example to other people, and for the sake of safety," he said on Terzake on Monday.
He explained that to implement this decision the government should seek advice from hospitals, the Superior Health Council, and the National Labour Council to get all employees and employers on board.
This means that Vandenbroucke's recommendation is unlikely to become an immediate obligation as the necessary recommendations to make such a decision will only be ready in September, after which it will be considered from a legal perspective.
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"But we have already started the legal work, and I am going to propose very explicitly to the Federal Government and also to my colleagues in the regions that we make vaccination compulsory for people who work in healthcare," he said.
Until the proposal becomes law, Vandenbroucke said he wanted to ask hospitals and care institutions to disclose the percentage of their staff that has been vaccinated on a voluntary basis.
He said that before the end of August the Flemish Institute for Equality of Care will ensure that these centres and hospitals share their figures on a voluntary basis. However, in the French-speaking regions, this step is not yet being taken.
The reason behind the sudden change in opinion on this matter, according to Vandenbroucke, is the low vaccination rate in the Brussels Region, where just 59% of the adult population is fully vaccinated, putting it behind Flanders (87%), Wallonia (77%), and the German-speaking region (72%).
Third shot and Covid Safe Ticket
Ahead of Friday's Consultative Committee, Vandenbroucke also discussed the possibility of a booster shot for the coronavirus vaccines, which he said "would be useful", but added that this decision could only be made following the advice of the Vaccination Task Force.
"The first step they propose is to give this third shot to the most vulnerable group, which is people who have problems with their immune system, making their systems weakened," he said. This would account for somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 people.
Meanwhile, Vandenbroucke has argued to expand the use of the Covid Safe Ticket, which allows people to prove that they are fully vaccinated, have a negative test result, or have recovered from the virus within six months, and is currently used for attending larger outdoor events.
This topic has caused division within the government, as Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon said it should not be made mandatory at weddings or other small private events, as this would be "taking it too far."
However, Vandenbroucke said he is in favour. "Take a party of 750 people: then you could also introduce the Covid Safe Ticket, and the sector wants that too."
Vaccinations in schools
Vandenbroucke, however, admits that it will take more than mandatory vaccination to solve Brussels' coronavirus situation, as a high circulation of the virus and returning travellers who are infected are also playing a role in this issue.
He added that for Brussels, but also for schools in other regions, he wants to work with the competent pupil guidance centres to administer vaccinations through school systems.
"I strongly advocate the use of schools for vaccination. Not only to reach and convince young people but also to ensure that the vaccines are offered," he told Radio 1.
He has urged both the Office de la naissance et de l'enfance (ONE), the French-speaking public body for matters relating to childhood policies, and the Centrum voor Leerlingenbegeleiding (CLB), the equivalent body for Dutch-speaking schools, to help inform their pupils and make sure that vaccines are offered, especially in schools in Brussels.
The CEO of the University Hospital of Brussels (UZ Brussel) has also spoken out saying all university students in the city should be obliged to be vaccinated, saying this is an "obvious measure."