'Have to keep variants out': returning travellers still don't get tested enough

'Have to keep variants out': returning travellers still don't get tested enough
Credit: Belga

The number of travellers who get tested after returning to Belgium from a red zone is still not high enough to effectively "keep coronavirus variants out of the country," according to Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne.

While the number of travellers who get tested after returning to Belgium has increased to over 80% in a few weeks time, it has to be "even better," Van Quickenborne said in the parliamentary committee on Tuesday.

"During the Christmas holidays, there were reports that only 37% of travellers were tested," he said, adding that the stricter controls have started showing results. "In the meantime, 83% of returning travellers actually get tested."

According to Van Quickenborne, over 1,200 returning travellers have already been charged for non-compliance with the rules: 831 travellers were fined for not having completed the Passenger Locator Form (PLF), and 432 for not getting tested or not being able to show a negative test result.

Now, it is important to make sure that the percentage of 83% rises further, "so that we can prevent the circulation of new variants in our country," he said.

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Particularly the Indian variant of the coronavirus (B.1.617) is worrying experts, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified it as a "variant of global concern," with figures showing it has now been detected in 44 countries

At the end of April, Belgium decided to temporarily ban passenger travel from India, but stricter testing rules are also necessary for travellers coming or returning from other countries, as the variant is so widely spread.

On Wednesday, virologist Steven Van Gucht also called for even stricter monitoring of returning travellers, saying that the number of tested travellers "has to be even higher than today if we want to keep Belgium sufficiently safe in the coming weeks and months."

During a press conference on Tuesday, he already stated that whether or not the Indian variant 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," he said, calling on everyone to stick to the rules, keep their distance from others as much as possible and always err on the side of caution.

Additionally, Belgium will have to wait two or three more weeks before it will have clarity on the rules for travel in the European Union this summer, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said at the Consultative Committee on Tuesday.

At the European Council meeting on 25 May, it will be determined how the EU’s “Digital Green Certificate” can be used, and in which way it will ensure that travel can be made safe and easier.

It will show that a person has been vaccinated, has a recent negative Covid-19 test result or has recovered from the infection, indicating immunity, and "will be used to make travel safe," De Croo said.

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