The Flemish healthcare agency Zorg en Gezondheid (Z&G) is taking legal advice to find out whether an instruction from Antwerp province governor Cathy Berx is lawful.
This week Berx (CD&V) instructed Z&G to issue an order of ‘strict house arrest’ to any person in the province who tests positive for Covid-19, and to ensure the order was carried out.
Antwerp province is the most infected province in the country at the moment, mainly as a result of infections in the city of Antwerp. That has led to tough new measures including a curfew from 23.30 to 06.00, the widespread compulsory wearing of face masks, and a ban by the Netherlands on travellers from their next-door province.
But Z&G has misgivings about the legality of the order.
“This is an example of the eternal clash between basic human rights and protecting public health in this crisis,” spokesperson Joris Moonens said.
Normally, he said, an order for house arrest – even in the guise of medical quarantine – would be considered a very exceptional measure to take, issued by doctors in urgent situations, such as a tuberculosis patients who threatened to run away.
But Berx’s order is not exceptional, as it covers the whole province of some 1.86 million people, and a situation that is likely to affect a good number of them.
According to the latest figures from Sciensano, 1,171 people were reported positive for Covid-19 in Antwerp province in the week beginning 20 July – up from 501 in the previous week and 172 the week before that.
“To do such a thing in a more structural way requires more research into what the legal possibilities are,” Moonens said. And the fact that hundreds of people are involved presents a logistical nightmare.
“If you want to impose and maintain such an order, you have to find a system that you can apply at a local level. That implies giving local services access to patient data,” he said.
That then butts up against the right to privacy and the confidentiality of medical information.
“The question has been asked of us, and we are investigating whether we can respond to that question,” he said.