Politicians call to end face masks, experts plead to keep them

Politicians call to end face masks, experts plead to keep them
The City centre of Mechelen in the midst of the lockdown. Credit: Jules Johnston/The Brussels Times

An increasing number of politicians is calling to lift the general face mask obligation across Belgium, but the GEMS expert group advising the government wants to keep the measure in place until at least the end of the winter season.

In recent weeks, many Flemish politicians have called on the Consultative Committee to relax the face mask obligation in the region, citing the high vaccination rate in the region.

The presidents of several Flemish parties, Bart De Wever (right-wing N-VA), Joachim Coens (Christian democrat CD&V) and Egbert Lachaert (liberal Open Vld), already made it clear that they want the mandatory mask rule to be lifted in most situations.

On Thursday evening, the president of the Flemish socialist Vooruit party, Conner Rousseau, also stated that relaxing the mask rules in Flanders should be possible due to the high vaccination rate.

“However, there are also places – like Antwerp or Brussels – where people have not yet been vaccinated so much, and where we should not provoke the virus,” he said on VRT’s television programme ‘Terzake’.

Like Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke, Rousseau still sees the use of masks. “On the bus, in the metro… places where people stand very close to each other,” he said.

“Those are places where I think it is still good to wear that face mask because there is still a lot of risk of infection and circulation,” Rousseau said, echoing Vandenbroucke’s earlier statements.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, meanwhile, already suggested abolishing the masks in places where sufficient social distance is possible and where the vast majority of people are vaccinated.

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However, the Federal Government has not yet reached an agreement about the masks, reportedly because Vandenbroucke is strictly adhering to the experts’ advice and does not want to abolish the rule.

Wearing a face mask is “a simple measure is to keep each other safe,” he told VRT on Thursday evening. “Especially when inside a room where you cannot keep your distance.”

In a report given to the authorities on Thursday and seen by De Standaard, the GEMS experts stated that “wearing a face mask remains one of the most important measures in autumn and winter,” and is crucial for “essential indoor activities where vaccinated and unvaccinated people may meet (public transport, shop, bakery, pharmacy).”

Last Sunday, infectious disease expert and GEMS chair Erika Vlieghe already warned that “as a society, we are not ready” for the sudden abolition of masks. “To me, it seems reckless to say ‘guys, let’s just do away with all rules’. Instead, let us carefully continue as we were,” she said on VRT’s television programme ‘De Zevende Dag’.

Coronavirus Commissioner Pedro Facon also stated that he is not in favour of the idea of banning masks from the streets on VTM News on Thursday.

“The figures have stabilised a little, but we know that there is a greater risk of circulation due to the return to school and the workplace,” he said. “That is why we propose to keep face masks in the autumn and winter.”

On Flemish radio on Friday morning, virologist and interfederal Covid-19 spokesperson Steven Van Gucht agreed with Facon, saying that “from a scientific point of view, we think it is still a little too early.”

“There is still a very difficult period to start, namely autumn and winter. According to certain calculations, there is still a chance of a fourth wave that could overload the hospitals,” he said.

“The big test of the vaccination campaign is yet to come, but with relatively mild measures, we can suppress such a fourth wave,” Van Gucht said. “These include face masks, the Covid Safe Ticket (CST) and teleworking. These can get us through this period safely.”

The Consultative Committee will meet this afternoon from 2:00 PM to discuss the measures. A press conference to announce its decisions will be held afterwards, De Croo’s cabinet confirmed to The Brussels Times.

More information about the topics on the agenda of the Committee can be found here.

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