Experts question feasibility of Belgium’s relaxation milestones
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Experts question feasibility of Belgium’s relaxation milestones

The Consultative Committee may have only just announced the two “milestones” that Belgium has to pass before further relaxations are possible, but some experts are already worried about whether or not they can be reached.

Currently, 941 Covid-19 patients need intensive care in Belgium’s hospitals, meaning that that number “has to fall rapidly,” before anything can change, according to biostatistician Geert Molenberghs.

This could be bad news for the first milestone, which would allow the terraces to reopen, the curfew to lift and outdoor events with 50 people to be organised by 8 May – providing:

  • 70% of people over 65 years old have been vaccinated,
  • the pressure on the intensive care units has “sustainably improved.”

Meeting the milestone “is possible, but a lot will depend on vaccinations on the one hand, and on how we are going to follow up on the measures in the meantime,” Molenberghs said. “If we had certainty, those conditions would not be necessary, and the date for relaxations would simply be set.”

According to Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, the vaccination condition is certainly feasible, as more than 50% of over-65s have already received a first dose. “Between now and 8 May, we are going to administer at least one million more shots.”

This confidence was shared by Flemish Welfare Minister Wouter Beke, who told Flemish radio on Thursday morning “I think we will reach the 70% rate (in Flanders) as early as next week.”

The Intensive Care Problem

By the time the second milestone is expected – currently set for early June – certain experts remain divided on what could happen. In order to meet the criteria:

  • nearly all over-65s and vulnerable people should have received a shot,
  • fewer than 500 patients must be in the ICUs.

As with the first milestone, there is a certain degree of confidence that vaccination should reach the correct levels.

“We are making good progress with the over-65s,” Dirk Ramaekers, the head of the Vaccination Taskforce told VRT. “We are also starting with the high-risk groups. By mid or end May, we will have vaccinated our most vulnerable groups.”

For the ICU, however, there is less certainty.

Whether or not society can be opened further in June is entirely dependent on if the situation in hospitals has “normalised” by then, according to Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke, who said that the “critical threshold” of 500 Covid patients must be reached before any rules can be relaxed in summer.

“Conditionality is the keyword,” Marc Noppen, CEO of the Brussels university hospital (UZ Brussel) said on Flemish television on Wednesday evening. “I think it is risky to work with data based on which a number of measures will or won’t be relaxed.”

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Additionally, Margot Cloet of the umbrella organisation for hospital staff Zorgnet-Icuro said that she is “very concerned about what is happening and what is going to happen,” pointing to the fact that 96% of intensive care beds are currently occupied.

A more cautious opening of society would have been better, according to her. “I understand very well that society asks for prospects, but it would be better to link it to infection and hospital figures. We are watching this with apprehension.”

While GEMS-chair and intensive disease expert Erika Vlieghe also said she understands why the relaxations were announced, she is still worried about the epidemiological situation.

Especially the relaxations for indoors, such as being allowed to invite two cuddle contact (from the same household) into your home, are a cause for concern, as they mean an increase in people’s contacts, “and we do not know how that will go.”

The lifting of the non-essential travel ban, even while travelling remains strongly discouraged, is also a matter of concern, Vlieghe pointed out. “Very tight controls will be needed to keep it all under control.”

“But we understand the emotion of the people to get some more freedom,” she said. “However, this is certainly a risk. Let us not ruin it now that the finish line is in sight.”

Maïthé Chini & Jules Johnston
The Brussels Times