On Wednesday 22 December, the Belgian Consultative Committee discussed the COVID situation in the country and noted that the Omicron variant is rapidly gaining ground. With this in mind, the Committee advocates caution and has moved to reinforce protective measures from Boxing Day, Sunday 26 December 2021.
While the total number of infections has decreased, with a slight drop in pressure on the healthcare sector, the number of beds occupied in intensive care by COVID patients remains high at 693. In addition, the new Omicron variant is gaining ground in Belgium and already accounts for more than 27% of infections across the country. This variant is much more contagious than previous variants and is expected to become the dominant variant by the start of 2022. Due to the high contagiousness of this variant, extreme caution is required.
Vaccines remain the main protection against severe forms of COVID, with the booster dose in particular providing additional protection against the Omicron variant. Nearly four in ten adults (37%) have already received their booster vaccine and the Committee wants all adults to have had the opportunity to be vaccinated by the end of January.
To slow down Omicron's progress, to reduce its impact on hospitals and to avoid jeopardizing the reopening of schools after the Christmas holidays, the Committee has therefore taken a series of measures, which will come into force from Sunday December 26. These are itemised below.
1. No relaxation of rules
The current rules, decided by the Committee on 3 December, remain in force, in particular the wearing of a mask (compulsory from 6 years old), the obligation to telework (with a maximum of one day of return per week in the office) and the closure of the hotel and catering industry (at 11 p.m., with no exceptions for Christmas or New Year's evenings).
2. Indoor and outdoor events prohibited
All mass events inside are prohibited. This also applies to Christmas markets, winter villages, cultural and other performances, as well as congresses organized inside.
The interior spaces of the cultural, festive and recreational sectors are also closed, with the exception of:
- Libraries, game libraries and media libraries;
- Organized activities focused on the needs of vulnerable groups, i.e. socio-cultural activities, continuing education activities and activities for young people with professional supervision;
- Party and reception rooms, only for weddings and funerals;
- Wellness centres, including saunas, solariums, jacuzzies, hammams and steam baths.
Cinemas, laser games, bowling alleys, escape rooms, paintball, snooker, darts and billiards centres as well as indoor trampoline parks must also close.
The sports sector remains open, including fitness centres and swimming pools. Recreational elements of swimming pools and subtropical swimming pools must close, as well as the interior spaces of amusement and animal parks. Sports courses can only take place without an overnight stay.
3. Stricter rules for outdoor events
With regard to outdoor events, stricter regulations will apply to avoid crowd effects:
- Prohibition on the use of marquees and other covered spaces welcoming visitors
- Maximum one visitor / 4 m2
- From 100 visitors: one-way traffic plan with separate entrances and exits.
4. Sports competitions without an audience
The presence of the public during professional and non-professional sports competitions and training is prohibited. This rule prevails inside and out.
5. Safe shopping
Shopping can be done with a maximum of two people (with the exception of minors from their own household). One visitor is allowed per 10 m2 of retail space. It must be possible to guarantee a distance of 1.5 m between consumer groups. If the retail area is greater than 400 m2, adequate access control must be provided.
6. Mandatory teleworking
Teleworking remains compulsory with a maximum of one return day to the office per week.
7. Safe parties
The Concertation Committee recommends continuing to limit contact during the Christmas period and encourages recourse to self-testing. Ventilate indoor spaces and wear a facemask. And if you are feeling sick, then stay home.
Given the positive opinion of the Higher Health Council and the Bioethics Advisory Committee, the Committee also asked the Vaccination Taskforce to start the vaccination of children aged 5 to 11 as soon as possible and on a voluntary basis.
The Committee recommends the use of FFP2 masks for vulnerable people. Recent scientific studies indicate that the omicron variant resists longer in air than the previous variants.
The Committee will reassess the epidemiological situation in the first half of January 2022.