The Belgian government issued 284 licences since March 15 for the export of face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to countries outside the EU, despite the acute shortage in Belgium itself, and despite an EU export ban, De Tijd reports.
On March 15, just two days after the announcement of the closure of bars and restaurants here, the EU issued an order stopping all exports of PPE and other vital medical equipment to countries outside the EU. Exports could only go ahead if a member state specifically insisted.
According to De Tijd, that has happened 284 times in the period of barely seven weeks since the order – an average of six shipments a day. And that, in a period when front-line workers in hospitals and care homes were having to work with a shortage of PPE while dealing with people sick and dying from the coronavirus.
The PPE in question concerns not only face masks but other protective equipment such as visors, gowns and aprons, gloves and glasses.
The newspaper questioned the federal economy ministry, which has the responsibility for enforcing the EU order, on the reasons why Belgium insisted on not applying the order in those 284 cases.
In reply, a ministry spokesperson explained that 116 licences were granted on the basis of “contractual and commercial obligations,” 103 in connection with humanitarian aid, 56 in-company, from one branch of the company to another, and the nine remaining in the form of gifts to family members.
The ministry, headed by minister Nathalie Muylle (CD&V) declined to give details on the quantities of PPE exported, the exporting companies or the destination of the shipments. One clue, the newspaper reports, came in an interview two weeks ago in which Didier Gamerdinger, health minister in Monaco, told how his government had been unable to obtain masks from a number of countries, but had obtained “many” from Belgium.
And while Belgium intends to make the wearing of masks compulsory on public transport from Monday, yet is unable to fulfil its promise to supply everyone over the age of 12 with free masks, Monaco was able to begin distributing free masks to the population two weeks ago.
In the meantime, the Belgian government has no view of the quantities of PPE exported by Belgian companies since the lockdown to other EU member states. Those are not covered by the EU order, and Belgium, unlike Germany, has never taken unilateral action to oblige manufacturers to give preference to the domestic market before selling abroad.