'Don't relax too much at once': experts plead for caution at Consultative Committee

'Don't relax too much at once': experts plead for caution at Consultative Committee
The city will increasingly tap into the unused potential of rooftop spaces. Credit: The Brussels Times

Several experts are calling for more caution from Belgium's Consultative Committee today, as they are afraid politicians will relax too many measures at the same time.

Following reports about Flanders' "Freedom Plan" and announcements for major festivals in the second half of the summer, infectious diseases professor and member of the GEMS expert group, Steven Callens, called on the government "not to relax too much at once, and to speak tentatively."

"We are getting a bit nervous about all of it," Callens said on Flemish radio on Tuesday. "People talk about complete freedom, but actually we should be talking about conditional freedoms, as there will always be conditions."

According to Callens, when talking about relaxing measures, there is too much focus on vaccinations. "We equate [them] with full immunity, but that's not quite true. The vaccines do not work for the full 100% in everyone, we should not forget that."

Additionally, he stressed that the jabs are only fully effective after the second shot. "We do not have to take that first shot into account too much, so it will take at least until the end of August before everyone is sufficiently protected."

If we only look at vaccinations, and neglect the general epidemiological situation, the variants, the number of infections and hospitalisations, "we will be deluding ourselves and it will be even more painful to have to scale back measures later on," said Callens.

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He also warned against making announcements about the distant future, such as festivals like Pukkelpop in August, echoing earlier statements by GEMS colleague Erika Vlieghe, who said that the proposed plan for the summer was "completely at odds" with what the experts had suggested.

"We really need to speak much more in the conditional tense," Callens said. "At the moment, we are projecting three months ahead, which is too long."

Virologist Steven Van Gucht, who is also a member of the GEMS expert group, also stressed that Belgium's vaccination campaign will only be completed by early September, and that major relaxations before then are not a good idea.

Large, international events in the summer are "a real trade market for variants, and we must avoid that at all costs," according to him.

"There are indeed a lot of prospects, but we advocate keeping everything small-scale this summer," Van Gucht said. "More will be possible later in the year, but the summer will remain a transition period."

Addressing concerns about the Indian coronavirus variant, Van Gucht stated at a press conference on Tuesday that whether or not it will break through in Belgium "depends first and foremost on the space we give the virus in the future."

"Viruses surf on people's behaviour. If we relax [the rules] too much too quickly, you can expect an increase in the number of infections," he said.

"The increase could mean that there is an increase in the Indian variant, but it could also be another one, or a combination of variants," Van Gucht added. "So a lot depends on relaxations, and on people's behaviour."

He stressed that he hopes that politicians take that into account when making decisions today, as "it is the best guarantee not to have to go back on decisions."

The Consultative Committee has been meeting since 9:00 AM today to discuss the next stages of the pandemic. The full agenda can be found here.

Afterwards, a press conference to announce the latest decisions will be held, the cabinet of Prime Minister Alexander De Croo confirmed to The Brussels Times. No timing has been communicated yet.

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