As Brussels' coronavirus vaccination coverage rate remains lower than in other regions, the region's Minister-President Rudi Vervoort has called for an open debate on mandatory vaccination.
Whilst in Flanders and Wallonia, 78% and 67% of the total vaccination has been vaccinated, respectively, in Brussels, just 51% of all citizens are fully protected, leading to debate about various possible solutions for the region. Vervoot asserts that the question of mandatory vaccination is central.
"The compulsory nature of the vaccine, in any case, should be at the heart of this conversation, and we should talk about it without refusing this debate," he told RTBF.
Vervoort stressed that this low figure was not the result of a failure of the vaccination campaign, run by Brussels' Common Community Commission (Cocom), which has helped launch various initiatives to bring the administering of doses closer to target groups.
The issue, he stated, is that many refuse vaccination for a whole range of reasons, from anti-vaxxers to people who are either disinterested, uninformed or afraid of the vaccine.
- Anderlecht offers vaccination and Covid kits at Social Welfare Centre
- 'Slippery slope': Covid Safe Ticket threatens people's fundamental rights, says Unia
However, drawing on the analogy of a horse that refuses to drink, Vervoort posed the question: "Should it be forced?", before saying that he believed "at some point, it should be."
"It is a question of solidarity and a question of collective interest. We also live in society. In society, that also means that we must do our part to protect each other," he explained.
'Not up for discussion now'
Currently in the region, a quarter of the capacity of intensive care beds are occupied by Covid patients, compared to between 8% and 11% for the rest of Belgium.
For this reason, nurses at the university hospital in Brussels (UZ Brussel) have also pleaded for vaccination to be made mandatory, arguing that the government failed staff by not discussing this earlier.
“Currently, those taking up intensive care unit beds are all unvaccinated and that makes us especially angry because this situation could have so easily been avoided,” Caroline Robberecht, a UZ Brussel intensive care unit nurse, told The Brussels Times.
However, according to Inge Neven, head of the Brussels Health Inspectorate, mandatory vaccination for all people is a discussion that “cannot take place at the moment.”
She added that, especially from a legal point of view, implementing such a rule would be too difficult. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo last week also spoke out against making vaccination mandatory.
"If people refuse to vaccinate, what will you do, put them in jail? It is a completely rhetorical and theoretical solution," he said during an interview with Le Soir.
According to Robberecht, a first step would be obliging visitors to hospitals to show proof of vaccination or recent recovery from the virus through the Covid Safe Ticket (CST), something the umbrella organisation for Flemish hospital care also called for.
On Thursday afternoon, the framework to regulate the expanded use of the CST in the Brussels-Capital Region for entrance to clubs, restaurants and bars (not terraces), gyms and residential care centres for vulnerable people, was approved at first reading.
“With this first-reading approval, the Brussels Government confirms its intention to make the CST applicable to certain sectors quickly,” a press release published by Vervoort's cabinet, stated.
Once the amendment to the agreement and the ordinance itself has been legally finalised, CST use should be expanded.
Mandatory vaccination for healthcare staff was also announced in the last Consultative Committee at the end of August, and Neven says preparations regarding this measure are ongoing. Speaking to The Brussels Times, she said that the discussions were "very difficult."
On Friday afternoon, the Consultative Committee will once again meet to discuss the epidemiological situation in Belgium and possible relaxations (or tightening) of measures.