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Experts advising Belgium’s government will soon be paid

Credit: Belga

Belgium’s federal government will soon start paying the experts advising the authorities about the coronavirus crisis for their advice, in hopes of calming rising tensions between politicians and experts.

The decision about payment of the GEMS-experts, which include Erika Vlieghe, Steven Van Gucht, Pierre Van Damme and Marc Van Ranst, was already made in December, when the new advisory board was erected, but the official arrangement has only been made recently.

It concerns sitting fees per attended meeting, at a rate of €50 per hour of meeting, reports Le Soir, which is the same rate as the experts of the Superior Health Council and the Federal Health Care Knowledge Centre.

“This should make their position clearer,” government sources told the newpaper. “In this way, they are really in the service of the government.”

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“However, payment does not change our deontology,” chair of the GEMS expert council Erika Vlieghe, told De Standaard. “Our deontological starting point is that we decide on every advice by consensus with the experts.”

“That means that everyone defends it afterwards, even if you do not fully agree with it. This does not mean that we also have to defend political decisions, even if they were taken on the basis of that advice,” she added.

“We have to respect them, but it is not up to us to defend them,” Vlieghe said. “That is a task for the politicians who made that decision.”

Rising Tensions

On Sunday, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo stated in VRT programme ‘De Zevende Dag’ that he calls on “all experts” to base their statements on facts, adding that “everyone could stand to be more careful, both in science and politics.”

His statements were a reaction to the rising tension between experts and the government, particularly following the recent criticism of the leader of the Francophone liberal MR party, Georges-Louis Bouchez, about virologist Marc Van Ranst.

Last week, Bouchez said that “if you are paid by the government, you should be loyal to the government and not constantly question its decisions.”

However, Van Ranst accused Bouchez of lying, or being ill-informed, “which is just as bad, because you are deliberately damaging the reputation of the experts.”

“I have not received a single euro from the government since the start of 2020. That is okay. Lying about it in the media is not. You may apologise,” Van Ranst tweeted.

Last week, Egbert Lachaert, leader of the Flemish liberal Open VLD party, also criticised the experts for “over-communicating” after Van Ranst said that reopening hairdressers on 13 February was “totally unfeasible.

While most other parties do not openly criticise the experts in the same way as Bouchez, members of the Flemish rightwing N-VA and Christian-democrat CD&V parties have also repeatedly stressed that it is the government that makes the final decisions, not the experts.

A Ministerial Decree is about the experts’ compensation is completely ready, and now lies with the Finance Inspectorate for advice, report local media. After that, Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke still has to sign it before it can come into force.

Maïthé Chini
The Brussels Times

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