'Too little, too late': experts divided on Belgium's latest measures

'Too little, too late': experts divided on Belgium's latest measures
Credit: Belga

Coronavirus experts in Belgium are divided in their reactions to the latest measures announced by the Consultative Committee on Wednesday evening.

The stricter measures - which include an extended face mask obligation and mandatory teleworking for most of the week - will take effect on Saturday and stay in force until the end of January, but the experts and the authorities agree that they were necessary.

'Must avoid that the situation becomes dramatic'

"It is important that people judge the situation correctly and that the measures are followed," Frank Vermassen, chief physician of UZ Gent told Het Nieuwsblad.

"I hope that this will suffice, but of course it depends on the extent to which the measures will be followed," he added, stressing that the pressure on his hospital, as well as in other hospitals in the region, has been increasing in recent weeks.

"At the moment, it is serious but not hopeless or dramatic yet," Vermassen said. "And we must avoid that it will become dramatic."

The measures are "a good balance between what is necessary and what is possible to guarantee economic and social activity as much as possible," he said, adding that he believes that these rules can make the difference.

'Last chance to turn the curve around'

While biostatistician Geert Molenberghs (KU Leuven/UHasselt) is "moderately satisfied" with the decisions, he "would not mind if it had been a bit more," he told the Belga News Agency.

Specifically, the obligations to install CO2 meters in schools and to work from home four days a week are very important measures, according to him.

"Those are two good things. It remains to be seen whether the measures taken will be enough to reduce the infections, so it is important that they are followed up," Molenberghs said.

"In any case, this is the last chance to turn the curves around, while still keeping all sectors open," he added.

This week, infection figures reached almost 20,000 cases in one day, Molenberghs stressed. "That is as high as when we were at the peak last year, but we are not at the peak yet. This is a worrying situation."

'Too little, too late'

Professor and dean of the health faculty at VUB Dirk Devroey is not impressed by the measures that were taken, calling them "not sufficient" and "lacking decisiveness."

"The measures taken [on Wednesday] should have been taken three weeks ago. Now they have come rather late and will probably not be enough to ensure regular care in hospitals," he shared on Twitter.

"Tomorrow, we will count 20,000 positive tests, which puts us at the same level as in the second peak of the pandemic," said Devroey. "If we had taken these measures three weeks ago, we might have been able to turn the tide. Now the situation is getting out of hand." According to him, the increase in hospitals will continue for at least another three weeks, which will put a strain on regular care again. "Once again, it is the people in the care sector who will pay for this and face a long winter." Additionally, Devroey believes that the measures are difficult to enforce. "Who is going to check whether there are CO2 meters in every classroom? Are police officers going to go out and do that? Who is going to check what happens in nightclubs?" "I said the same thing last year around the same time: it's too little, too late."

'An acceptable package, but difficult to predict'

"It is very difficult to predict whether this package of new coronavirus measures will be sufficient because at the moment the curves are going up steeply," virologist Marc Van Ranst said in the studio of VRT’s ‘Het Journaal’ on Wednesday evening. “It is an acceptable package,” he said, although he added that he would have liked to have seen the face mask obligation become even stricter. In a leaked report from the GEMS experts, it was made clear that they recommended an obligation from the age of 9.

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Van Ranst is very pleased about the obligation to install a CO2 meter in the classrooms, however. “That is long overdue. I hope that this is a real obligation now.” On the other hand, he also understands the opinion of Margot Cloet of the care umbrella organisation Zorgnet-Icuro, who stated that these measures will not be enough to make a change. "There is nervousness in hospitals, so I can understand Ms Cloet. But in politics compromises have to be made," Van Ranst said, adding that he hopes for a "vigorous campaign" to give the booster shots. "The vaccines are there. Even if we have to move heaven and earth, the authorities have to realise this as quickly as possible."

'Mask will always work for everyone'

The risk of school closures will still remain, even after the extension of the face mask obligation to children as young as 10 years old, according to virologist Steven Van Gucht. "In primary education, there are now a lot of infections and not much is actually being done about it," he said on VTM News following the Consultative Committee on Wednesday. "We only test sick children and if there are four in the class, the class is closed. Then you are falling behind," Van Gucht said. "Then there are already more children who can pass on the virus." He did welcome the introduction of the so-called "Covid Safe Ticket+ rule," which makes a face mask compulsory, even where the CST applies. "That is what we as experts have asked for. The CST alone is absolutely insufficient to organise an event safely," Van Gucht stressed. "The mask will always work for everyone."

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