The government has plans to increase testing for Covid-19 in the latter part of the year, from around 28,000 tests a day at the moment to 50,000 a day, rising to 70,000 on some days.
The clarification comes from Philippe De Backer (Open VLD), nominally federal minister for the digital agenda, telecommunications and post, but since the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic in Belgium also the minister charged with testing strategy, protective equipment and contact tracing. De Backer, a doctor in biotechnology from Antwerp, was interviewed at the weekend by De Tijd.
De Backer, who actually announced he was leaving politics at the time of the election in 2019, but rashly promised to remain until a new government was created. Now, 592 days since Charles Michel handed his resignation to the king, a caretaker government is still in place, and De Backer with it.
Last week that caretaker government drew up a strategic plan for the second wave of the epidemic, expected to come in the autumn. The second wave appears to have arrived already, but the strategy will go ahead.
The standard mantra for epidemics is test-trace-isolate. Belgium currently carries out about 28,000 tests a day, according to the health institute Sciensano, and capacity is stretched to the limit.
The government plans to carry out a minimum of 50,000 tests a day in the autumn, with the possibility of going up to 70,000 if the situation requires. According to De Backer, the country’s labs will have the capacity by that time to carry out 40,000 tests a day, and the government, he said, will take care of the rest.
“We are looking for locations to add testing stations,” he said. “We are going to buy machines and the chemicals for testing ourselves. It is a gigantic logistical operation, in which we want to deploy students and nurses to take the pressure off of GPs.”
Other parts of the strategy including mass vaccination against seasonal flu, in order that symptoms of flu are not mistaken for Covid-19, thereby causing needless pressure on health service.
The government is also reported to be planning the appointment of a coronavirus commissioner, along the lines of the naming of Professor Marc Van Ranst in 2007 as the commissioner for influenza matters. For the time being, the exact function of the commissioner, or the likely candidates, have not been divulged.
Although planning a return to the private sector as soon as the parties can agree to form a new government, De Backer stands by the government’s plans and rejects criticism of its performance so far – not least in his own area of personal protective equipment and contact tracing.
“There is a constant stream of criticism, focusing only on what goes wrong” he said.
“Our hospitals held up during the first wave, we tested all the nursing home residents after the initial problems and in two weeks we brought in large orders of protective equipment. We now have millions of masks in stock, so there will be no more shortages. I think that is pretty good, but an image has emerged that it is worthless. That’s too bad.”