Belgium's stricter rules for travellers returning to the country take effect from today, and can have far-reaching consequences for holidaymakers currently abroad.
Holidaymakers who are currently in a red travel zone will be obliged to undergo two Covid-19 tests and go into mandatory quarantine upon return - regardless of their activities or social contacts abroad, the Consultative Committee decided on Wednesday.
Why were these measures not taken during the previous Consultative Committee, when rules for travelling were already tightened?
"At the Consultation Committee a fortnight ago, we were very strict about the measures relating to travel," Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on VTM News on Wednesday evening, referring to the strong advice against travelling abroad.
"Why did we strongly advise against it? Because we are at a time when there can sometimes be new developments," said De Croo, adding that "those who chose not to travel are not faced with unforeseen circumstances today."
However, as the coronavirus figures in many other countries in Europe are higher than in Belgium at the moment, "we need to be very strict," according to him.
"It is quite clear that, on the basis of the new information, we must do everything we can to keep this virus and, above all, the more dangerous variant, outside our borders," De Croo said.
Do you have to quarantine when you return to Belgium?
After a stay of at least 48 hours in a red travel zone, quarantining when back in Belgium is compulsory from today (31 December), both for residents and non-residents.
All stays in red zones will be considered high-risk contacts from now on, according to the Consultative Committee.
This means that quarantining for at least seven days is mandatory for everyone entering Belgium from a red zone, even if their Passenger Locator Form (PLF) shows that their risk of infection was low.
How does Covid-19 testing work when you return?
Anyone returning from a red zone must have a PCR test taken on day 1 of their return in Belgium.
To that end, the testing capacity in Brussels Airport will be further expanded to allow incoming travellers to be tested voluntarily right away. Additionally, test capacity will also be developed at Charleroi airport and Brussels-Midi station.
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From Saturday 2 January 2021, people will receive a text message after their return, which they can use to register at a test centre.
After the test on day 1, travellers have to go into quarantine for at least seven days, regardless of the test result. On day 7 of the quarantine, they need to be tested again. If the result of that PCR test is negative, they can leave their self-isolation.
These new measures will apply provisionally until at least 15 January.
Are there any exceptions to this measure?
Yes. Three groups of people do not have to respect the mandatory quarantine.
People who have a critical function in essential sectors are still allowed to go to work if they have a certificate from their employer to prove it.
Additionally, students can interrupt their quarantine to take an exam. After the exam, they have to go back into quarantine immediately.
Lastly, people who stayed abroad for professional reasons until 4 January will not have to quarantine either, provided they have a certificate from their employer.
From 4 January 2021, the assessment of the Passenger Location Form (PLF) will take into account professional journeys certified by the employer.
Will there be checks to see if you are respecting quarantine?
From January, the police zones will monitor compliance with the quarantine and carry out checks.
However, the enforcement of quarantine is a regional competence, meaning the way these checks will be carried out could differ in Flanders, the Brussels-Capital Region and Wallonia.
Officers will probably not come to knock on everyone's door, but they will be able to check during checks for drunk driving, for example, whether the driver should be in quarantine.
Failure to comply with the measure can be punished with fines, and even possible criminal prosecution.
According to De Croo, health inspectors can also carry out checks, and are even "already doing so."
Will there be checks if you want to enter Belgium?
Additional checks will be organised on the return from abroad, including on correctly completing the Passenger Locator Form (PLF), as well as on the mandatory negative Covid-19 test for non-residents.
These additional checks will not only apply to people entering Belgium by plane, but also to those entering by car, train or boat, according to Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden.
According to her, systematic checks will be organised on everyone coming from abroad by collective means of transport. In the case of car passengers, random checks will be carried out at the borders.
What if you have to quarantine, but cannot work from home?
While Federal Employment Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne first announced that workers returning to Belgium who cannot telework during their quarantine would receive temporary unemployment benefits, his cabinet now announced that this is not the case after all.
"You will have to use your own leave days or take unpaid leave. That is only reasonable," Dermagne's spokesperson Nicolas Gillard said. "You will have to fill in those quarantine days with your own leave days."
Returning travellers whose jobs enable them to telework will not be hindered by the stricter travel measures, according to Geert Vermeir earlier, legal adviser at SD Worx social secretariat. "During the quarantine, the employee can then continue to work from home," he said.
Employers' organisation Unizo stated that it understood the stricter rules, but believes that the decision comes too late.
"Our government could have anticipated this a few weeks ago and avoided these panic rules just before the change of year," managing director Danny Van Assche told Het Nieuwsblad. "If employees have to be quarantined, companies will have to reorganise their planning last minute."
Do your children have to quarantine as well?
Yes. The quarantine obligation also applies to children, De Croo confirmed on VTM News on Wednesday evening, adding that that means that they will not be allowed to go to school right away.
The Brussels Times