Belgium will start relaxing some of its coronavirus-fighting measures after the so-called "Easter pause," announced Prime Minister Alexander De Croo during a press conference on Wednesday.
"We, with the Consultative Committee, have opted for a cautious and realistic approach, relying heavily on trust," De Croo said. "If you look at the situation in the hospitals, you cannot say that we have received much good news in recent days."
"We see that the pressure there remains extremely high, and that of all the patients who are admitted, about one-third of them go on to intensive care," he added. "That is more than during the first and second waves."
"That is why the Consultative Committee decided to keep the 'Easter pause' of four weeks in full," De Croo said, meaning that it will remain in force until 26 April.
From Monday 19 April, schools will reopen following the same rules as before the Easter pause, meaning that pupils in the second and third grades of secondary education (aged 15-18) will only be able to physically attend school half-time, with half-time distance learning still in place.
The ban on non-essential travel to and from Belgium will also be lifted from Monday 19 April. However, people returning from a red zone will have to quarantine and will be required to get tested on day 1 and 7 of their return.
"I want to stress that this is really not the moment to start travelling. It is really not," De Croo said, adding that this system will remain in place until the country can switch to using the EU's Digital Green Certificates.
From Monday 26 April, non-essential shops can also reopen fully again, as the shopping by-appointment system will be scrapped. "This means that there will be a big responsibility for the local authorities."
Non-medical contact professions, such as hairdressers, beauticians and tattoo artists, can reopen.
People's "outdoor bubble," the number of people who are allowed to gather outside, will be increased from four to ten people, both in public and private spaces.
From then on, pilot projects will also be launched in the culture and sports sectors.
"In order to be able to prepare the complete reopening of our society in the long run," he said. "A new approach that places more emphasis on risk management, rather than the constant closing and reopening of sectors."
"These are the last weeks, but they weigh the most," De Croo said. "There is only one answer to all these questions: vaccination, vaccination, vaccination."
"Two Major Milestones"
The next two "major" steps will be based on milestones in Belgium's vaccination campaign, according to De Croo.
"The first milestone is when seven out of ten people over 65 years old will have received their first vaccine dose, and two to three weeks will have seen the optimal effect on their immune system," he said.
"We assume that this moment will be around 8 May. If the situation in intensive care units has improved by then, we will switch to a broader outdoor plan."
From then on, the terraces of the hospitality sector will be able to reopen, and customers can be served outside.
The same day, the curfew will be lifted and will be replaced with a ban on gatherings for more than three people between midnight and 5:00 AM.
People will also be allowed to invite two so-called 'cuddle contacts' into their homes, instead of one. However, these two people must belong to the same household.
From then on, worship services will be allowed to take place again, as will cultural activities outdoors for a maximum of 50 people. Amusement parks will also be able to reopen.
The second milestone will be when almost all over-65s and vulnerable people have been vaccinated, according to De Croo. "This is expected in early June. From then on, events will again be possible and more will also be possible indoors."
"We can succeed in this if we take responsibility, together," De Croo said. "If we keep our distance from each other, if we keep away from crowded places, if we do not do things that endanger each other. We are stronger if we work together."
"No matter how you look at it, none of us will be safe unless everyone is safe," he added. "So I'm calling on everyone: get vaccinated. Sign up for a reserve list. The vaccinations are speeding up. The vaccination plan is the only real exit plan."
"A few weeks ago, when we announced the 'Easter pause,' we had hoped that the figures would be better today," said Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon. "However, some figures are still cause for concern."
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For the hospitality industry, the support measures will continue to apply once the terraces can reopen, according to him. "Some businesses do not have a terrace, the weather also plays a role, it will not be easy for the sector."
Additionally, next Friday (23 April), a special Consultative Committee will also take place, aimed at gradually restarting the culture and events sector, and the sports sector, according to Jambon.
"We are trying very hard not to forget anyone," said Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke, adding that "we are certainly not forgetting the many people affected by Covid-19."
"Hospital staff, who are fighting with this virus. The young people, who can go back to school. The managers of businesses in the hospitality sector, who have been looking at empty halls for months," he said.
"This is not an easy exercise. It is still driving ahead and looking back to look at how the epidemic is evolving in the meantime," said Vandenbroucke. "That is why we agree on concrete prospects, but emphasise that these are not without conditions: people must be vaccinated."
"Additionally, today it was announced that Johnson & Johnson will stop supplying us with their vaccine for a while," said Vandenbroucke.
"The logical conclusion is that we will not be doing the planned tests with the Johson & Johnson vaccine in the coming days," he added. "This will not harm our vaccination campaign, as that vaccine was only a small part of our use."
"We have also asked the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to be more specific about the pros and cons of using the different vaccines," Vandenbroucke said. "Based on that, we will soon know how to use those vaccines in the future."
The Brussels Times