DThe Belgian Prime Minister sounded almost like John F. Kennedy when she introduced new measures against the resurgence of the corona virus on Monday. Everyone should ask, “What can I do personally to fight the virus and protect my loved ones,” said Sophie Wilmès. The urgent appeal was justified: the country has returned to normal so quickly and so much that rules have hardly been followed. The result soon followed. The number of infections has skyrocketed since the beginning of July. The virus reproduction rate is above one.
Political correspondent for the European Union, NATO and the Benelux countries based in Brussels.
For Belgium, the EU infection control agency recorded 28 detected infections per 100,000 population in the first half of July. In the same period, there were only eight in Germany and 35 in Spain. The country is still a long way from Luxembourg (219), which is the only region in Central Europe to have the highest warning level “red”. But Flanders is already colored “orange”. Around half of the daily new infections were recently in the metropolis of Antwerp, where a number of restaurants and pubs did not comply with the protection requirements and quarantine rules were also broken. Now bars have to close at 11 p.m. After that, a curfew begins until six in the morning, the local authorities announced after an eight-hour crisis meeting on Monday evening. In the rest of the country, too, citizens have to cut back significantly.
The “social bubble”, “la bulle sociale”, has become the measure of freedom in recent months. In the end it was so big that hardly anyone took the restriction seriously. Each individual could have contacts with 15 changing people per week, without mouth protection and minimum social distance. As of Wednesday, this will be limited to five people per household; they must always be the same until the end of August. The country falls back to the first phase of easing in May. The permitted number of participants in public events is also halved: to 200 people outdoors, 100 in closed rooms, each with a mask requirement.
Crisis management with confusion
“It’s about avoiding general exit restrictions and not jeopardizing school resumption from September,” Prime Minister Wilmès said. She spoke of “very, very strong measures” with which the government implemented “one on one” the recommendations of the virologists. With public submissions, they had recently increased the pressure to act. The same thing had happened with the protective masks before: Only when more and more experts called for them did the federal government impose a general obligation to wear such masks when shopping and on other occasions. Wilmès was accused of emphasizing too much the regained freedom of citizens, although she had always admonished greater responsibility.
Nevertheless, the government’s crisis management has been anything but optimal in recent weeks. The introduction of a traffic light system with warning levels for European travel regions in mid-July caused confusion when many families had already left for the holidays. State-of-the-art travel is forbidden in most of Portugal, in two Spanish provinces (Lleida and Huesca) and to Leicester in England. Anyone returning from there must take a corona test and quarantine for two weeks. A form must also be completed for air, rail and bus travel. Tests and quarantine are recommended when traveling to EU countries and regions marked in yellow: Bulgaria, Croatia, Luxembourg, Romania, Sweden, other areas of the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal as well as Austria, Poland and Slovenia.
Which countries can you still travel to? See the overview here.
Although significantly more Belgians spend their holidays on the North Sea coast than usual, there is great concern that infections will be introduced. So far it is planned that the schools will largely resume normal operations from the beginning of September. Wilmès already prepared the citizens that patience was needed: the infections would continue to increase before the new cuts in the numbers became apparent. For the liberal politician herself another moment of truth comes in September: she then has to face a vote of confidence in parliament.
After a month-long Corona break, the parties have resumed their attempts to form a stable parliamentary majority. The contract was given to the two opponents, who had probed and then rejected an alliance months ago: Bart de Wever from the Flemish nationalists and the Walloon social democrat Paul Magnette. If they can get together on the second try and get their parties involved, the days of Prime Minister Wilmès are numbered. Otherwise, the country is heading for another parliamentary election; the last one was in May 2019.