Belgium reimposes telework mandates to fight Covid-19 surge

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo also said the government will mandate indoor mask wearing. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) - Belgium reinstated an obligation to work from home and extended mandatory mask wearing to 10-year-olds as it tries to prevent a seasonal surge of the Covid-19 pandemic from becoming a threat to its healthcare system.

The most dramatic step is a requirement for employees to work from home four days a week into mid-December, despite opposition from some business groups.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo on Wednesday (Nov 17) also said the government will mandate indoor mask wearing even in venues where access is regulated by a Covid-19 vaccination pass. Belgium's government and regions resisted calls from experts to shut down its nightlife.

The tightening reflects how Belgium's relatively high vaccination rate is not by itself protecting the country from being overrun by the broader resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic across Europe.

The average number of daily cases in the country now tops 10,000 and Belgium has one of the highest per-capita case rates in Western Europe.

On Tuesday, Covid-19 patients took up almost 30 per cent of capacity in intensive care units, which, according to Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke, are running short of qualified staff.

About 75 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, with rates as high as 93 per cent among adults in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders.

European nations are rolling out a patchwork of new restrictions and are trying to boost vaccination rates, with Austria and Germany imposing strict new limits on activities by the unvaccinated.

Belgium, unlike neighbouring Netherlands, is so far refraining from imposing business restrictions such as closing down nightlife entertainment.

The Dutch government, which ordered restaurants and bars to close by 8pm for three weeks, has already earmarked €1.3 billion (S$2 billion) to compensate businesses for the loss of revenue until the end of this year.

Mr De Croo said that Belgium's high vaccination rate is the main reason the government was able to avoid imposing a new lockdown.

The four-day-a-week teleworking mandate starts next week and runs through Dec 12, when it may be lowered to three days a week if the virus trends permit.

The new restrictions also do not go as far as some of the measures that were in place earlier this year, which included mandatory teleworking five days a week and limits on private social gatherings.

Belgium is separately accelerating its booster shot campaign, with plans to make additional jabs widely available. Belgium has set a Nov 27 date to decide about the practical arrangements of such a booster-shot plan.

Belgium has so far approved booster doses for those aged 65 and older, anyone with immune deficiencies and all healthcare workers. Those who received the Johnson and Johnson vaccine can receive a booster starting in mid-December.

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