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Belgium tightens COVID-19 measures, hopes to avoid lockdown

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Belgium, one of the European countries worst hit by COVID-19, has tightened curbs on social contacts by banning fans from sports matches and limiting numbers in cultural spaces, while officials in Wallonia imposed a stricter night curfew on residents, write and

The local government in the French-speaking region, among the hardest-hit parts of the country, has told people to stay at home from 10pm to 6am and made remote working mandatory for students until Nov. 19.

Belgium, which has Europe’s second highest infection rate per capita after the Czech Republic, had already closed cafes, bars and restaurants and imposed a shorter night curfew. New infections hit a peak of 10,500 on Thursday.

But the government has resisted calls from medical experts to order a new lockdown to avoid causing more economic pain.

The restrictions - running until 19 November - also include stricter social distancing. They are intended to avoid crowding on public transport, and impose a limit of 200 people in theatres, concert halls and cinemas.

“We are pressing the pause button...we have a single objective, which is to limit contacts that are not strictly necessary,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told a news conference. “There’s no law that can stop the virus, the only ones who can stop it are us...all together.”

Epidemiologist Marius Gilbert wrote on Twitter that hospitals were on the brink of collapse.

Calling for people to act responsibly, he said the protective mask was the “condom” of the coronavirus - “something...we have in our pocket and that we take out when we love or respect the person we are talking to”.

Belgium is expected to record a daily rate of 20,000 new infections by next week, a spokesperson for the Sciensano health institute said.

The nation of 11 million people had 1,013 new COVID-19 infections per 100,000 residents over the past week and its death tally since the pandemic began is 10,588, according to official figures.

Belgium

Commission approves €434 million wage subsidy scheme to support Belgian companies affected by coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission has approved a €434 million Belgian wage subsidy scheme to support companies that have had to suspend their activities due to new emergency measures put in place by the Government to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The scheme was approved under the state aid Temporary Framework.

The scheme will be open to companies in the hospitality, culture, recreation and events, sports, holiday parks and campsites sectors, as well as travel agencies, tour operators and touristic information services. The measure also applies to some of their suppliers, subject to the condition that they have suffered a significant decrease in turnover as a result of their clients' compulsory shutdown.

The public support will take the form of direct grants, of an amount corresponding to the social security contributions due by the employers between July and September 2020. The scheme aims at avoiding lay-offs and helping the beneficiaries resume their business activities after the compulsory shutdown period.

The Commission found that the Belgian scheme is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, the support (i) will be granted to companies that are particularly affected by the coronavirus outbreak; (ii) will not exceed 80% of the gross salary of the benefitting personnel in the relevant 3-month period; and (iii) is subject to the condition that the employers commit not to lay off the relevant personnel during the three months following the granting of the aid. The Commission concluded that the scheme is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework.

On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.59297 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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Belgium's care homes violate human rights: Rights group

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Basic human rights of elderly people in care homes in Belgium have been violated during the coronavirus pandemic, a rights group said in a report. According to Amnesty International report on nursing homes in Belgium, the country's authorities “abandoned” elderly people in nursing homes and they died "early" due to lack of sufficient health care, writes Busra Nur Bilgic Cakmak.

The report - prepared through interviews with people in nursing homes, employees, and managers in March-October - said 61% of those who died in this period in the country were those who stayed in nursing homes. In Belgium, with a population of 11.4 million, 535,000 cases and more than 14,000 deaths have been recorded since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the report, authorities delayed taking measures to protect elderly people who are staying in nursing homes. The report also argued that until August, the test capacity was insufficient for employees in nursing homes, who served without adequate protective equipment for a long time.

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Belgium launches COVID patient air-lifts to Germany

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Belgium’s surging second wave of COVID-19 cases has forced it to move some severely ill patients, many on ventilators, to neighbouring Germany, and air ambulances began flying Belgian patients further into the country on Tuesday (3 November), write Philip Blenkinsop and .

The helicopter operator transports each COVID sufferer inside a giant transparent plastic bag connected to medical devices. Most of the transferred patients are intubated and on ventilators.

Belgium had among the highest death tolls per capita from the first coronavirus wave in March-April, and now has Europe’s highest per capita number of confirmed new infections, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The country of 11 million people has 7,231 COVID patients in hospital, 1,302 of them in intensive care and local hotspots, such as the eastern city of Liege, have seen the capacity of intensive care beds being reached.

Ambulances began taking patients across the border last week and have so far transferred 15. Air ambulance helicopters started transferring patients deeper into Germany from Tuesday.

Olivier Pirotte, operations coordinator for the Centre Medical Heliporte (helicopter medical centre), said air transport was required to minimise the travel time for patients.

A trip such as to the German city of Muenster would take at least three hours by road, but can be done up to three times faster by air, and with fewer shocks to the patient such as from road bumps.

Martin Kotthaus, Germany’s ambassador to Belgium, said a mechanism had been set up to allow Belgian patients to transfer to hospitals in the German state North Rhine-Westphalia, where there is more spare capacity.

“In the first wave, Germany had more than 230 patients from Italy, France and the Netherlands. Now we are extending our help to Belgium,” he told Reuters. “But in the future, it might be Germans who would have to come to Belgium.”

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