The federal government spends around €25 million on free PCR coronavirus tests every week, Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said, amid a debate on whether self-tests should be free of charge.
In Belgium, a person can request a code to book a free PCR test if they are showing coronavirus symptoms. The cost of these tests, around €25 million every week, is covered by the federal government, despite this not being its responsibility, Vandenbroucke explained.
"We already offer free PCR tests when needed and that costs us a lot of money," he told Radio 1 on Friday.
"If you are going to be very precise about that, you could say that that is not even a responsibility of the federal government, that is a competency of the communities, but still, we pay the full cost of that," he added.
His comments come in light of calls from various parties in the Flemish Parliament, including the greens (Groen) and the socialists (Vooruit), as well as consumer rights organisation Test Achats, that free self-tests should be offered to families with school-aged children.
Following the decision to relax the testing and quarantine measures in the education sector, education ministers issued a strong recommendation that all primary and secondary school children take a self-test once a week. However, unlike in other countries, including Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, families will have to cover the costs for these tests themselves.
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"The logic would be that if, for example, in education, it is felt that children should be tested, then the competent departments should ensure that schools can buy free tests. Then there is a target group and an objective," Vandenbroucke explained, adding that he is not passing on the responsibility, but that one should "take into account the powers and competencies."
Covering costs for lower-income families
Vandenbroucke stressed that the federal government already covers a large chunk of the cost for self-tests so people with a lower income, who are entitled to an increased allowance for the purchase of medicines, can buy them at a reduced price.
"We have decided to make the self-tests available to pharmacists who explain them and who sell the self-tests for €1 to the 20% of people with the lowest incomes," Vandenbroucke explained.
However, according to Flemish green MP Celia Groothedde, the Flemish Government has hardly promoted this arrangement. She added that the social rate is still too high.
In other countries, free self-tests are available to the entire population. In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service (NHS) allows citizens to buy test kits every day, to be delivered to their homes.