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Why relaxing too many rules is not a good idea in March

Credit: Belga

It is looking likely that Belgium’s Consultative Committee will relax some rules on Friday, but experts believe that March is not the right month for too many relaxations.

According to virologist and member of the GEMS expert group advising the government Steven Van Gucht, the authorities’ decision to postpone any possible relaxations by a week was a wise one.

“By now, we have moved up another week,” he told The Brussels Times. “That is something that all predictions and models show: the longer we hold on to the measures, the less risk there will be for certain relaxations.”

While this Friday will not bring any drastic changes in the figures compared to the previous one, the authorities will have more information about the evolution of the curve – which seems to be stabilising.

Progress in the vaccination strategy and better weather

“Easing certain measures in March has a much higher risk than easing those same measures in April, and certainly than in May,” Van Gucht said. “That is because more and more people are vaccinated.”

Additionally, spring will be in the country soon. “Not just a few sunny days like now, but the really good weather, from May onwards and so on,” he said, adding that the risk of infecting people when outdoors is lower, so you can relax more safely.

“The whole of March remains a very risky month in any case, and we have to be very careful,” Van Gucht added. “Anything you do too much in March, you will have to pay a very high price for a few weeks or even a month later.”

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Giving the virus too much oxygen now could result in a third wave a few weeks down the line, he said, referring to the models presented during Prime Minister Alexander De Croo’s unexpected press conference last Monday.

“As the models show, the risks when waiting until May become very small, provided that you do it carefully and in phases, and keep on vaccinating,” Van Gucht added.

He underlined that not too many rules should be relaxed in March, but if rules are changed, it should be to improve people’s morale and mental wellbeing.

Possible extra restrictions?

Predicting the figures is not easy, but they do seem to be stabilising, according to him.

“For now, we may not have to put restrictions on the table just yet, but we do have to take into account that we may have to take some additional measures if that changes,” Van Gucht said.

“I myself am convinced that we do not need to have further measures to keep the virus under control,” he said. “But that is on the condition that the current measures are widely supported and respected.”

Extra measures would be “a pity,” but if the number of infections and hospitalisations rise too quickly, there will not be much choice.

“We are already at over 400 people in ICU, and if that increases, things can go fast,” Van Gucht said. “Before you know it, a few hundred more people will be added, and in no time you will have half the beds filled with Covid patients again.”

Not in the ‘safe zone’

Belgium has never really reached the “safe zone” to start considering relaxations. “It is different when you have reached it and the numbers are lower, so the system can tolerate more.”

Belgium has always stayed at a relatively high plateau, which Van Gucht said is good because it was not a third wave, but a stable plateau.

“However, it was at a fairly high level, and that makes it not take much for the figures to start increasing again,” he added. “So, it will depend on the details in the coming days.”

To be really safe before any substantial relaxations, we should stay below the threshold of 75 hospital admissions per day for three weeks, underlined Van Gucht.

“However, we are currently seeing double that number, with an average of 150, so that is not on the horizon for the time being.”

Maïthé Chini
The Brussels Times

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