The time has come for Belgium to lift the last remaining coronavirus measures and "stop holding the population hostage," according to president of the Flemish right-wing N-VA party and mayor of Antwerp, Bart De Wever.
De Wever has been critical of the federal government's coronavirus policy throughout the pandemic, but the bottom of the barrel has been reached with the latest Ministerial Decree, he said on Flemish radio on Thursday.
"You cannot say for a year that when we reach a certain vaccination rate, we will let go of the restrictions. And then when you reach that point, say it is still not possible," he said. "The population has done what it needs to do, now we have to stop holding that population hostage."
As of this week, over 70% of the population in Belgium has been fully vaccinated. While this was the threshold initially put forward for herd immunity, experts later stated that there is "no magic number" for herd immunity, but that aiming for 80% to 90% would be safer, considering the rise of the more infectious Delta variant.
According to De Wever, however, the time has come to start treating Covid-19 as any other normal virus, some of which Belgium deals with every winter.
"If the hospitals become overburdened, of course you have a problem, but if people do not end up in hospital, we should not focus on the number of infections. We have to let that go," he stressed.
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What triggered De Wever's plea is Interior Affairs Minister Annelies Verlinden's disapproval of nightclubs in Antwerp, Ghent and other big cities wanting to open now (instead of waiting another month until 1 October) by organising private parties, he said.
While Verlinden stated that this is unacceptable and not according to the spirit of the law, De Wever said that nightclubs are just following the letter of the law, and pointed to "major inconsistencies" in the policy.
From Wednesday 1 September, large events are again possible (more than 200 people indoors and more than 400 people outdoors) without face masks or social distancing, if the organisers require a Covid Safe Ticket from all attendees.
"You cannot explain to nightclub owners that they are not allowed to party with a few hundred people, while a nightclub event with 15,000 people can be organised in the Sportpaleis," he said.
Additionally, De Wever accused Verlinden of not having managed "to deliver even one decent Ministerial Decree (which gives the coronavirus measures legal basis) after one and a half years of crisis."
"Every time, there is something else. In the beginning, you understand that. Now, we have reached the limit," he said.
Loopholes and inconsistencies
In a reaction given to VRT, Verlinden calls De Wever's words a "personal attack," adding "that is not the way I do politics. In recent months, we have made agreements in difficult circumstances about contacts and activities of the population, in the interest of public health."
Additionally, she pointed out, those Ministerial Decrees were drawn up after consultation and by mutual agreement, with approval of Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon, who is De Wever's party colleague.
De Wever, in turn, said that while Jambon was indeed present during the Consultative Committees that decided on the measures, the drafting of the Decrees is in Verlinden's hands, "and I can give some examples of matters that are Flemish competencies, but then suddenly and by surprise appear in the (federal) Decree as Verlinden wants them to."
Those Decrees are full of "things that were not intended, things that cannot be applied, loopholes and inconsistencies," he said, adding that that causes the support among the population to crumble.
"That is the price you pay for setting democracy aside," De Wever added.
"At some point, you were not allowed to sit on a bench, but there was no legal basis to fine people who did. Or when people were allowed to go through the house to the garden, but only the cuddle contact was allowed to go to the toilet," he said.
"I could write a book about all those Decrees that contain things you know cannot be done if you think about them for five minutes."